Award-Winning Style: Sewing Her Way to Success
Her spirit is as colourful as the many costumes she has designed and sewn for carnival revellers around the world. Born in the district of West Bay in 1954, Reba Dilbert grew up with a pair of scissors in hand and her six siblings stepping in as her models. Decades later, she continues to draw attention to her talents, competing in pageants around the world as Cayman’s only professional costume designer.
How did you become a costume designer?
I have been cutting fabric since I was young. My grandmother, the late Maggie Bodden-Hydes, was a dressmaker and had a sewing room in her home. I loved being in that room because I wanted to learn to sew and make doll clothes. I began observing what she was doing when I was three years old. One day, she left a pair of scissors in the sewing room, and I took it. I got up while everyone was asleep and starting cutting! I did not know what I was doing at the time. I would cut my hair, my siblings’ and the neighbours’ children’s hair, tablecloths, curtains, my father’s shirts and pants.
I starting sewing at the age of five and could sew and cut by time I reached nine. I could sew [by] hand like a sewing machine.
In those days we had… lamplight to see at night, and I’d stay up with my mother and grandmother to sew school uniforms and school bags made from chicken feed sacks, Cayman straw hats and school bags made from the national tree of the Cayman Islands, the silver thatch.
One day, I went to Lu Lu Panton beauty salon with my mother. As soon as I walked in, I fell in love with that little salon. There was makeup, nail polish and the like. I decided to buy nail polish and remover, hair cream, razor blades, and such. I had big, big, big plans for my siblings and cousins when I got home with my items; they were going to be my models.
When did you start drawing/creating carnival costumes?
I started making costumes in 1975. The first ones were for my daughter for Sunday school. Then I made floats and costumes for the Cayman Pirates Week Festival in 1980, and for the first year of Batabano [Cayman carnival] in 1983. I started making costumes, and I’m still making ‘em today. I like it more than just sewing a dress, pant and blouse. Bridal dress or cocktail dress, that is easy to learn and do, and not as creative as making costumes. I love to create my own designs.
What makes carnival time so special to you?
It is the one time each year that I can go wild and crazy creating! I love what I do, I create from the heart, mind, body and soul, and I put all my pride into the work I do — that is when I show my true colours. I love the beautiful colours of fabrics, sequins, feathers and glitters, and most of all, I enjoy having lots of material to cut and create my own design.
What makes it so very, very special is that I only work with children and young people. I see their smiling faces of joy and happiness when they first receive their costumes, and hear from their mom or dad how they loved their costumes so much that they went to sleep wearing them.
Where do you draw your inspiration from when developing such beautiful costumes?
I create designs in my mind and envision what I want to do. My eyes design whatever pattern I need, and then I sketch it out and work from it.
To be very honest, my parents, grandmother and siblings all knew that God had given me a very special talent. I never went to university or college; it’s a gift given to me by the Creator of this earth, and all that comes with it is common sense, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, patience and most of all, faith. Without faith, my work would change. Before I cut, I pray, and then I leave it in His hands. It is an honour to be blessed by the mighty one and I am so proud that it does not come from mankind, because what God has given to me no man shall take away, and that is what makes my talent so special to me.
I love to be alone when I am creating, and late at night, there is no one to disturb me when the Spirit comes to me.
In what other ways do you enjoy expressing your creative talents?
I love working with children and young people, for they are the future. I enjoy travelling around the world showcasing my work and competing in international competitions. I would love to hold a camp to teach the people of the Cayman Islands my trade, how to make costumes, and more about our culture and history through costumes for the annual festival.
What are some of the most memorable moments in your career?
There are many — and my father, if he were alive, would be surprised to learn a pair of scissors has taken me to so many places and given me so many awards.
In 1998, I was nominated by the Cayman Islands Cultural Foundation for outstanding work in costume design. In 2002, I had my first pageant, which got my career off the ground. I started talking to young ladies around the world, and my first trip won me best national costume in Malta. A year later, I went to Russia to compete; I finished in the top nine and won the Gold Apple Award and title of “World’s Best International Artist in Fashion Design Costume and Creativity.”
It was after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, when I lost my home, that I took a break from competition to work and travel with other international designers and learn more about costume making. I returned to work in 2010 for Batabano.
In June this year, I was honoured to receive the Cayman Islands Certificate and Badge of Honours on the Queen’s 85th birthday celebration.
Who would you say helped you become the person you are today, and why?
I would say my father, because he wanted me to become a teacher or a nurse; he never wanted me to sew. He said education is the key to success. I remember him telling me, “Your sister Ezmie will travel because she wants to be a lawyer.” Little did he know it would be the girl with the scissors who travelled the world.
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