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The Burbidges Bring Fashion to Wedding Cakes and Bridal Gowns

Danvers residents John and Cile Burbidge have worked in the halls of high-fashion and culinary arts for decades, and despite being well past retirement age, that hasn't dampened their artistic spirits.

Cile and John Burbidge know a little something about marriage and following one's passion. The couple, who met at the New England School of Design and are about to celebrate their 60th anniversary, have been part of countless weddings themselves for more than 50 years. Each brings their special talents to these special occasions.

Now in their 80s, the Danvers couple still pursues their artistic livelihoods, and the spark and respect they have, both for their work and for each other, is evident from the moment you meet them.

World-class bridal cake creations

Cile is a famed and award-winning wedding cake designer. Working solo on each project, she has made cakes for celebrities such as Bill Cosby and many other influential people, projects that have sent her and John all over the United States and abroad, including a trip to Africa to make a cake for the wife of a Nigerian tribal chief.

Cile has worked with the pastry chefs of the White House. Her cakes have been the centerpiece at events attended by Jackie Onassis; they have graced the windows of Tiffany's in New York and locally at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Her creations have also been featured in numerous magazines, such as Town and Country, Victoria Magazine, Chocolatier and Brides.

She has been hailed by luminaries, such as Julia Child, and recognized by Johnson and Wales University, which plans on featuring her kitchen (upon her retirement) in its Culinary Arts Museum.

Like her husband John, Cile's work is both intricate and distinctive, and she carries a love of design and exacting attention to detail.

Married after finishing design school, the couple's first business together was designing high-quality children's clothing. The business boomed, but after their second child was born, they knew a decision had to be made and ended the business on a high note.

John was already the senior designer for Priscilla's of Boston at the time and remained there for decades. Cile took time to attend to her young family, but the urge to work led her to a cake design class, and within a short time, she was soon lecturing on cake decorating on cruise ships in the Caribbean.

As the demand for her cakes grew, so did her adoration for teaching cake design.

"I'd make sure the kids were ready when John got home from Priscilla's, then I'd be off to teach at night. I loved teaching," she said. Cile finished her degree at Goddard College in 1983.

Now with two books published on cake decorating and having won the top award for "Ultimate Wedding Cake of the Nation" in 1993, Cile continues to make a few cakes each year. To this day, John still serves as her "delivery person and helper."

"I enjoyed meeting people – indeed the cakes have given us the chance to travel and meet the most interesting people," she said.

Famed bridal gown designs

John Burbidge has balanced not just cakes, but also his own impressive artistic career, with family life.

While at Priscilla's, John's bridal gowns were worn by many notable people, including two presidents' daughters (Johnson and Nixon), other world leaders and hundreds of brides.

John began his career after serving in World War II in the 10th Armored Division in Europe for three years. A visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris would turn fortuitous years later, when a desire to branch out from wedding dress design in the 1970s stirred those memories.

'The Little Ladies of Fashion'

"I was haunted by the French Theatre de la Mode, which showed the world that fashion had survived the war. I wanted to use that design concept to create my Ladies," John said.

After some research, he realized he was not creating a doll, but instead needed a fashion mannequin. He found what he was looking for with the artist John DeStafanos of Woburn.

The 29-inch mannequins – Les Petites Dames de Mode (in English, "The Little Ladies of Fashion") now model the haute couture French clothing that epitomized the Gilded Age (or Victorian and Edwardian eras) from the 1850s to around 1914. There are more than 70 mannequins.

The design process begins with thorough research of each period. John then turns himself back in time and "becomes a couturier of the time."

Each figure starts with design in muslin in two rounds – with priceless antique fabric sourced from that time period, there is no room for error. The "thinking out" process takes the longest, and including cutting and assembling, each of the Ladies takes about three months to fully complete with costume and accessories.

The details on each model are intricate, from the hand-sewn beading and lace to the parasol handles. Each figure is posed and captures a definite moment in time.

The Burbidges' attention to detail and accuracy – both from a historical point of view and from their own sense of artistry – is mesmerizing.

"We have had to slow down. But why would one stop? The work does not end…it is so important to contribute. It is about doing what you want to do," John said.

Editor's Note: John Burbidge presented a lecture on Saturday morning to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. He covered more than 30 years of work on his renowned costume collection – Les Petites Dames de Mode. The 29-inch high fashion figures, affectionately referred to as "The Ladies," are currently on exhibit at The Museum of the Gilded Age at Ventfort Hall in Lenox.

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