Story written by Elphina Jones for the Cayman Compass.
Larger-than-life and infinitely more colorful than the show-stopping costumes she creates, Reba Dilbert is Cayman’s carnival and pageant couture queen.
With her creative know-how and expert eye and dexterity, mountains of braid gimp, glitter elastic, sequin trim and feathers are transformed into dazzlingly different, wearable art.
Over the years, Miss Reba has won many awards for her daring designs.
Her costumes and pageant outfits, the product of hours of painstaking work, have not only graced revelers at some 30 Batabano and Pirates Week events, but have also delighted festival-goers and beauty show audiences abroad.
The making of an icon
Born in “Out on the Bay,” in what is now known as West Bay’s Heritage Square, Reba Gwendolyn Dilbert is the third of William and Veta Dilbert’s seven children. She is a first cousin of Caymanian artist Bendel Hydes, so creativity is clearly a family trait.
Always jovial, expressive and a bit of a daredevil as a young child, Miss Reba spent many happy hours with her maternal grandmother in her sewing room, sorting through scrap materials and watching the matriarch work. Inextricably drawn to her grandmother’s sharp steel scissors, nothing was safe from her magpie-like tendencies on behalf of her dolls, whether her parents’ clothes, curtains or the hair on her family’s heads.
Miss Reba recalls, “None of my siblings wanted to sleep in the same bed with me. They’d learned the hard way and were afraid to wake up with tufts of their hair gone.
“My dollies had to have human hair and different outfits … my sisters didn’t fancy having to wear wigs and go around with holes in their clothes,” she chortled.
No less safe was grandmother Maggie’s piecework: sewing sails for The Adams, a turtling boat. Although the canny grandmother usually locked the room on account of Reba, the child once got in through the loft and cut the edges of a sail for doll clothes.
Her mischief was discovered only after the boat returned from a turtling trip to Moskito Cays. On his return, her great-uncle “Son-Son,” a sailor on the boat, “swore blind that on account that of the holes, The Adams went flying, reaching the turtle fields in record time.”
In spite of such mitigating circumstances, Miss Reba knew she was “heading for a beating” and took off before her sentence was passed.
Batabano and beyond
As time passed, despite a lack of formal seamstress training, Miss Reba picked up all of the basics from her grandmother and was quick to acquire other skills through perseverance and trial-and-error. By making outfits for herself, her family members and friends, news of her talents quickly spread outside the district and eventually led to an invitation from the Department of Tourism to make outfits for the newly launched Batabano carnival in 1983.
“I worked a lot with one of the festival’s first coordinators, the late David Peynado. He was a Rotarian, so was excellent when it came to organizing events,” she said.
According to Miss Reba, Batabano was designed to become a mainstream, annual event that would attract tourists like carnivals in other parts of the Caribbean, and was used as a vehicle to encourage homegrown costume making.
“It started at the Agricultural Grounds, near the cricket ground in George Town, went down Shedden Road and into central George Town, to the Town Clock.”
At that time, the carnival had nine to 15 mas bands, which were fitted out in costumes according to local themes such as flora and fauna and marine life, Miss Reba said.
“In them days, things were more demure, in terms of costumes. Revelers exposed far less flesh and there wasn’t much whinin’ and grindin’,” she said.
By that time, Miss Reba was also heavily involved with Pirates Week and in creating pageant outfits for the local beauty show circuit. She quickly progressed to managing several local contestants and set up deportment classes, giving advice on diet, grooming and etiquette. This was in addition to running her own Batabano mas band, which included choreography alongside costume design.
Since the early years, her more elaborate creations have held center stage at many Miss Cayman, Miss Teen Cayman, Miss Tourism World and Miss Bikini World contests, earning her awards and applause, as well as cheers “pon de road” at the world-famous Rio and Trinidad carnivals.
Promoting Cayman overseas
An unofficial cultural ambassador when it comes to showcasing the creative flair and vivacity of local carnivals, Miss Reba gained national recognition in 1998 when she was nominated for Outstanding Work in Costume Design by the Cayman National Cultural Foundation.
In 2002, she gained international acclaim by winning Best National Costume in the Miss Bikini World (Malta) and Miss Tourism World (Turkey) pageants. That same year, she was also awarded Longest Batabano Participant for her work in creating designs for the annual festival. The following year, Miss Reba took part in the Golden Apple Design Awards in Russia, where she won World’s Best International Fashion Designer for her costumes. She also placed first in the Professional Avant Garde Women’s category in the 2008 International Design Awards (Platinum Level) in Los Angeles, a major design competition known to attract top emerging talent in the field.
Her participation in many of the prestigious overseas events was helped by sponsorship from the Department of Tourism, which valued her work in promoting Cayman culture.
In recognition of her work in putting Cayman festivals, pageants and carnival couture on the map, Miss Reba was honored in 2011 with the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honor for her contributions to community services. Invited by the organizers of New Jersey Fashion Week two years later, Reba showcased her bridal wear, evening gowns and costumes at Chelsea’s in New York.
For the past decade, Miss Reba has been increasingly involved in making costumes for several carnivals in Honduras. With La Ceiba in May, San Pedro Sula (the country’s second largest city) in June and Utila in July, it’s little wonder that Batabano has increasingly taken a back seat for Miss Reba.
Invited to attend several Honduranian festivals with Trinidad carnival designer and mas band leader Roger Hicks by a private citizen with close links to Cayman, it was not long before that country’s Department of Tourism called on Miss Reba to help ramp up some of its local carnivals.
Always keen to explore new challenges, she was happy to accept a contract from the department to make costumes. Speaking about her general impressions of the carnivals she has been involved with there, Miss Reba said, “The Le Ceiba Carnival attracts more than one million visitors each year and could probably teach us a lot about how to improve our floats and parades, while San Pedro’s has more than two million visitors and has a wonderful night parade, which throws out a sea of lights during the six-hour parade.”
Part of Miss Reba’s duties at that carnival include serving as dance instructor for the Cayman Islands mas band. The 62-year-old is positioned on the band’s truck leading the revelers.
As a promoter of the Caymanian/Honduran mas band at the festival, Miss Reba not only designs dozens of elaborate costumes, but also designs its colorful carnival floats.
With 30 years invested in parades and shows, Miss Reba is not going to slow down any time soon.
In this, her birthday week, the longtime West Bay resident finds there is still a lot about life to celebrate.
“It’s only getting sweeter now because I’m still learning and loving what I do,” she said. “I’m traveling more than ever and can promote Cayman as my costumes go where our Department of Tourism can’t.”