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Photo: Evan Rensch

Debbie Winston makes big gowns for a small town

Venture North~Fall 2011 (V5I3)

   When Debbie Winston's reproductions of gold-rush- era gowns, daywear, and uniforms find their way on a lucky wearer, it's impossible not to marvel at their intricate detailing and air of glamour. At the annual Commissioner’s Ball, held each June at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City, women swan about in her elegant creations--yards of fabric, sequins, beads, and feathers turned into works of art through Winston’s talents. Her work can be seen around town-in the windows of landmark buildings and on Parks Canada employees--helping to lend an air of authenticity to Dawson City’s well-preserved gold-rush charm.

   Winston’s studio occupies the top floor of her two- story home in the northeast corner of Dawson. Inside, sun streams through an enviable amount of windows and illuminates all manner of fancies. Bolts of glittering silks, brocades, and velvets are neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling racks, and wall-mounted units containing tiny drawers full of shiny beads and sequins awaken a visitor’s inner magpie. Dress forms with finished and half-finished gowns stand watch over multiple sewing machines, and a work table with two pairs of high-powered reading glasses belies the focus and concentration that goes into hand-sewing adorn- ments to delicate fabric.  A bookshelf overflows with fashion--history tomes, pattern guides, and picture books describing the evolution of the female silhouette.  A poster of dresses from the design house of Charles Frederick Worth, one of Winston's favourite designers, hands on the wall.  If it wasn't historically inaccurate, one might be tempted to pick up a gown and break into a verse of "I Feel Pretty."

   It’s no stretch to say that Winston’s work helps complete the fantasy of the North that draws visitors to the Yukon each year. Largely self-taught as a seamstress, Winston got her start in gold-rush-era costuming when she moved from Berkeley, Calif., to Whitehorse, in 1967. A brief stint at a First Nations handcrafts store in Wolf Creek helped improve her beadwork, but her talents truly came alive when she and her then-husband, Jim Murdoch, along with her husband’s brother, Lyall, and two other partners created The Frantic Follies, a gold-rush-themed vaudeville review.

   “In 1969 we started it as a volunteer show, and then in 1970 we made it to a full business,” she recalls. “We brought [legendary vaudeville entertainer] Gillian Campbell in as a performer, and she came with her own costumer, Ray Buchanan. I found it really neat to see some of the tricks he did with the inside--to make her waist look smaller and all that--but our styles were very different. He likes really flamboyant stuff. I taught myself my own style. I bought books on period costume. I bought sewing machines and books, and, when I started, I was doing really not so good stuff, but I practiced on some of the performers and got better with time.”

   In the beginning, The Frantic Follies, which still runs today in Whitehorse, was such a small outfit that Winston was called upon to perform.

“I didn’t really have any dance experience when I started, but I took lessons,” she recalls. In 1976, we got a contract to stage the show in the Palace Grand and Diamond Tooth Gerties, in Dawson, so I would go up there in the summer and dance and do the costumes.”

   Winston remembers doing three shows a night, then sending dancers over to Gerties for the late-night show. For her, the experience of being a performer helped her become a much better costumer. “It’s hard to be up there dancing if you’re worried your zipper might split!” she says, though she’s quick to note that she hides the zippers on her period-era costumes, as zippers didn’t exist in the days of the gold rush.

   In 1980, Winston moved to Dawson, still dancing and making costumes for the Palace Grand and Gerties. She opened up shop at Madame Tremblay’s, a gold- rush-era building owned by Parks Canada, selling dresses, costumes, and fabrics to tourists. When her lease on the building came up in the mid-1980s, she moved to Vancouver and worked in film, first as an on-set costumer on various television shows, then in the costume workshop for Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: SG 1.

   When the long hours of film finally began to wear her down, Winston came back for a vacation to the Yukon in mid-2000, at which point she realized Dawson was her home. In true Dawson fashion, she simply put the word out she was back and work started coming her way, whether it was alterations or custom orders for entire outfits. Since her return, she’s created period costumes for Parks Canada, as well as lavish gold- rush gowns on request, including a gown for former Commissioner of Yukon Geraldine Van Bibber. The gown, made of ombré-dyed silk, features a brilliant beaded fireweed on the skirt, a feat which took over 20 hours of hand sewing beads on one at a time. Winston has several clients who commission a dress each year, and though the garments aren’t cheap, they’re well worth it. And for those who can’t afford to purchase gold-rush-era formal wear, Winston is now in the process of creating several dresses for rent, as well as period-appropriate menswear for her ladies’ escorts.

   “There’s still some dresses I’d love to make,” says Winston. “The new Commissioner’s wife, I’d like to make her a fireweed gown, as well. It would be really neat if I could make a fireweed gown for each Commissioner.”

   For the moment though, she had more than enough work.  Two new orders for custom ball gowns, a vintage wedding dress to take apart and reconstruct in a small sizer, and a custom gown she made years ago to be reworked at the request of the owner.

   “It’s so pretty though,” she says, wistfully mooning over the green velvet bodice of her creation. “I hate to change it. Maybe I can talk her out of it.”


Debbie Winston is available by appointment at (867) 993-5993 or juba@northwestel.net. Y

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Harper Street Publishing
Box 141
Carcross, Yukon Y0B 1B0
Canada

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