December 7, 2022


Youth trendy style

Leona Brausen pays tribute in fashion to four legendary Canadian women

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One of the city’s most influential costume designers is paying homage to four iconic women who excite and inspire her, a tribute in fashion. Decking out mannequins in clothing pulled from her working inventory of tens of thousands of vintage garments, Leona Brausen’s displays will shine light on Viola Desmond, Emily Carr, Buffy Sainte-Marie and k.d. lang.

Starting Monday, International Women’s Day, the multi-stage project will fill the front windows of Varscona Theatre in Old Strathcona, the neighbourhood where Brausen has acted and costumed since 1982’s All These Heels — Stewart Lemoine’s first play, and part of the very first Fringe Festival no less.

Supported by the Edmonton Arts Council, the installation is called Hero Material. Each larger-than-life figure will have museum-style photographs and text, a mannequin dressed in a historical look, and a window which will essentially be an expressionistic, modern interpretation inspired by the clothing and who wore it.


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Working in a studio cluttered with clothes, shoes and perfume bottles, Brausen says of life before COVID-19, “It’s kind of what I would do when I’d have friends over and have tequila, and I would dress them up.

“I like making looks out of nothing.”

As longtime friend, artistic collaborator and Hero Material project manager Davina Stewart notes, “Leona has a great stock she’s been building for years. And I don’t know if she really realized she’s building it until she couldn’t move in her house any more.”

Brausen confirms, “It’s packed so tight, moths can’t get in. I am a hoarder.”

Back to Stewart, though: “What happens so often is people come to her as a costume designer with what their vision is, what they would like their story to be that they’re creating.

“But this time, it was, you get to tell the story! And who do you want to tell the story about? And why do you want to talk about these particular women? And she had those items, these costumes, already.

“It’s helping her see that, just because there isn’t a play, or a film shooting, that we can still tell stories.”

First up Monday is Nova Scotia civil rights activist and businesswoman Viola Desmond — immortalized on our $10 bill, which won the 2018 international Bank Note of the Year award.

“I came from a family that wasn’t very well dressed — dirt farmers,” Brausen laughs. “I’ve always been attracted to ’40s clothes — they’re very structured. When I saw pictures of Viola I thought, ‘I think I have that suit.’”


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Leona Brausen’s first Hero Material subject at Varscona Theatre is Viola Desmond.
Leona Brausen’s first Hero Material subject at Varscona Theatre is Viola Desmond. Photo by Fish Griwkowsky /Postmedia

The outfit, which Brausen previewed on a judy, is a two-piece, steel grey gabardine suit from the mid-1940s.

“With the men off to war, the shoulders got big,” she explains. “Gives you a more confident silhouette.”

Also in the ensemble: a lacy nylon shirt — “super flammable,” silk gloves, a costume brooch, button earrings, peep-toe shoes and even a vintage cotton brassiere.

“You need the right underpinnings to make these clothes properly,” the 60-year-old designer says. “If you don’t, it looks weird.”

To top it up, Brausen paired the ensemble with a violet wig (to match the bill) in a victory roll hairdo, explaining, “She wore her hair like Joan Crawford.”

Desmond was chosen because, beyond her look, Brausen admires, “her bravery. She didn’t take it from anybody, even when they dragged her out of the theatre and the police charged her for avoiding a one-cent sales tax.

“And she started her own line of beauty products because there weren’t enough for women of colour.”

In Desmond’s other window, says Brausen, “I’m sticking with the 1940s, going with a more boudoir look to highlight beauty.”

This will include an embroidered 1940s ladies robe with a frilly organza blouse underneath — her violet hair in curls and wrapped up.

“On the side will be a little table with vintage cosmetics on it,” says the designer. “Behind her will be a blown-up flyer of her cosmetics and their prices.”

Some of the finer details from Leona Brausen’s Viola Desmond display at Varscona Theatre.
Some of the finer details from Leona Brausen’s Viola Desmond display at Varscona Theatre. Photo by Fish Griwkowsky /Postmedia

Then, in three weeks, the whole display will switch over to painter Emily Carr.


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“She’s just a weirdo that I can relate to,” Brausen admits. “Go out in the woods with your menagerie, I’m all for it! She wore a wig cap on her head — sometimes net, sometimes not — it’s like the end of a nylon stocking.

“Nobody’s going to be rocking Emily any time soon,” she laughs, “but I can totally dig it. I’m inches away from that madness.”

Next up, musician and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, who Brausen remembers, “I would see on TV, the tall boots back in the ’60s, and just dig her style.

“She deals with heavy stuff and has heavy songs, but she’s so full of joy. Even at 80, she puts on that leather jacket and that beautiful Indigenous jewelry — she just rocks.”

The series will end with k.d. lang, who — before the ingénue’s international stardom — Brausen used to go see at club gigs, “Around town at the Westin ballroom or whatever dump before she broke. The audience was a mix between urban cowboy and cowpunk — lots of rockabilly people.”

Brausen, then working in a Greenwich Village jewelry store, even saw lang play at the famous Bottom Line show in New York City where the singer was first discovered by an American audience, saying, “Everybody was just so blown away.”

The Varscona windows for lang’s outfit will be iconic cutoff cowboy boots, a Mexican skirt, spiky hair and glasses. Sainte-Marie will be summoned by a v-neckline dress, crocheted shawl and ’60s leather gogo boots. And Carr’s prime mannequin will have a cotton dress with support hose, a painter’s smock and Carr’s famous monkey, which Brausen fashioned out of a scarf.

“I’m not a historical expert in any of them, but I know what I like,” she says, getting back to work. “They’re all such ground breakers.”

You can find shots of Hero Material’s garments on Instagram @leonabrausen and Or, better yet, drop by the Varscona Theatre’s windows any time in the next three months, day or night, for this curated peek at fashion history.

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