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Frances Dafoe, who created colourful costumes for a wide range of television shows and skating events, at her design table in 1983. (Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail)
Frances Dafoe, who created colourful costumes for a wide range of television shows and skating events, at her design table in 1983. (Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail)

Canadian Olympic skater Frances Dafoe became a designer to stars Add to ...

Frances Dafoe’s early days as an Olympic figure skating medalist helped to prepare her for a kaleidoscopic life as a costume designer to the stars. She brought her flair for colour and sense of design to countless CBC television productions, theatre festivals, and figure-skating competitions and shows. Her creations ranged from flame-coloured outfits to soft-grey chiffon pieces tipped in pink.

“She didn’t have a stop button,” said her son Adrian Dafoe.

Ms. Dafoe designed costumes for Karen Kain, Vanessa Harwood, Michael Burgess, Alan Thicke, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and many high-level figure skaters – including Katarina Witt, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Peggy Fleming, Brian Orser, Petra Burka, Robin Cousins and Kurt Browning.

She created costumes for the Charlottetown Festival, television shows such as The Wayne and Shuster Show and Mr. Dressup, and the closing ceremonies for the 1988 Calgary Olympics. One of her favourite jobs was working under choreographer Agnes de Mille at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

“It makes me tired just thinking about all of this,” Sarah Currie, her assistant costume designer at CBC, said of the sheer volume of Ms. Dafoe’s work.

Frances Dafoe died on Sept. 23 at her Rosedale home in Toronto – as she had wished – after a long battle with cancer. Elegant to the end, with her signature streak of white hair rising from her temple, she was 86.

From the beginning, whenever she found herself in a mix of old and new worlds, she always pushed for the new. She was a traditionalist in some ways: Her family always ate Sunday dinners together. At Christmas, she would prepare a table with all the flair of her CBC work. Yet she also pushed for equal pay for female designers at the public broadcaster.

“She took a pioneering approach to whatever she touched,” said Mr. Dafoe, who adopted his mother’s maiden name while in university. “Whatever she touched would end in a breakthrough of some sort.”

With her skating partner Norris Bowden, a childhood friend, Ms. Dafoe became a two-time world pairs skating champion, with athletic and innovative moves that changed the sport dramatically during the 1950s. They were the first to do a twist, a throw jump, a catch lift and a pressure lift that went above the man’s head. (Initially, many moves were ruled illegal.)

At the 1956 Olympics in Italy, Ms. Dafoe and Mr. Bowden were awarded the silver medal, losing the gold to an Austrian couple after some questionable judging. Spectators threw oranges at the judges and the ice had to be cleared three times before the event could proceed. The judging was even worse at the world championships that followed. Again, the Canadians were second. Coaches at the event asked the International Skating Union to declare the result null and void, but it did not.

After that, Ms. Dafoe and Mr. Bowden did what other top figure skaters did not do: They gave up a chance at skating in shows such as Ice Capades, and moved on with their lives. “She never put skates on again in any meaningful way,” said Blake Melnick, the older of her two sons with her first husband, Norman Melnick.

The Canadian Figure Skating Association suspended the pair for suggesting that skating was beset with politics, a move that seriously delayed their ability to become judges afterward. But both eventually did, although Ms. Dafoe did not judge her first world championship until 1984. She last judged an Olympics event in 1994.

“She would never say it, but by golly, [as a judge] she was going to put right what was done wrong to her,” Mr. Dafoe said. “It was like ‘I want to make sure what happened to us doesn’t happen to anyone else.’” She judged with integrity.

“She was my hero,” Mr. Melnick said. “She set a high bar for all of us in terms of the things we wanted to achieve in life. She was all about honour.”

He remembers a telling case from his own teen years. While at boarding school, young Blake was caught drinking beer with some friends. The headmaster told him that he would not be suspended if he revealed the names of his drinking buddies. He refused. The headmaster called his mother, but he didn’t get the answer he expected. “Good for him,” Ms. Dafoe said. “I support his decision entirely. It’s the honourable thing to do.”

“She always championed doing the honourable thing,” Mr. Melnick said. “She understood that sometimes making right decisions didn’t necessarily mean it was good for you. And things might not work out in your favour.”

Frances Helen Dafoe was born on Dec. 17, 1929, in Toronto. Her mother, Helen, was the daughter of one of Toronto’s most accomplished architects, Charles Gibson. Her father, William, was head of obstetrics at Wellesley Hospital, coach of an Allan Cup hockey team, and best friends with Lester Pearson; he served as a pallbearer at the former prime minister’s funeral. (Dr. Dafoe’s brother, Allan Roy, was a country doctor, best-known for bringing the Dionne quintuplets into the world.)

Young Frances attended Branksome Hall, a girls’ school in Rosedale, while she was skating, but never felt accepted. “She was going to pursue a path that was completely non-traditional from her peer group,” Mr. Dafoe said.

At times, she was late to the morning assembly because she had been training. “Teachers would make fun of her,” he said. “Why would a woman want to be athletic? Conformity was good. Being different was bad. They made her feel miserable for being different.”

She left Branksome for Central Technical School in Toronto where she found her artistic tribe. She studied under Canadian artist Doris McCarthy, who became a lifelong friend, and later attended the renowned Parsons School of Design in New York.

Ms. Dafoe’s first paid job as a designer was creating wedding dresses for the Simpson store in Toronto. Her work as a costume designer for CBC began in 1957, during the infancy of television, and continued until she retired in 1994.

As a boy, Adrian Dafoe found himself in a world of talented people doing “fascinating, playful things, like adult arts and crafts,” he said. “CBC was sort of a magic factory back then.” His mother took him to the set of Mr. Dressup when he was about 6. “I was able to see the Tickle Trunk itself,” he recalled. “I do remember thinking … ‘There’s the tree. Casey and Finnegan will be there.’ And all I needed to do was reach my arm in and pull them out.” A crew member rescued Adrian from the tree before he pulled the set down.

At first, Ms. Dafoe designed for black-and-white television, dressing Maggie Morris and Betty Kennedy on shows such as Flashback and Front Page Challenge. She designed the elegant gowns of singer Juliette. She showed her versatility while creating all the trappings for The Wayne and Shuster Show for 20 years, dreaming up everything from Julius Caesar robes to caveman loincloths. She became fast friends with all the performers.

In the 1960s, she was involved in the transition to colour television. “She was a very talented, imaginative designer and she loved a wide colour palette,” Ms. Currie said. “She loved colour and used it very effectively.”

Her work on Toller Cranston’s award-winning Strawberry On Ice television special in 1982 was ground-breaking. “There was just a huge playfulness at what she did,” Adrian Dafoe said. “Toller Cranston’s stuff gave her full licence.” Mr. Cranston appeared in a fire-red costume with flames licking up the chest to the shoulder. Above the fire line, it was to have the look of “jewelled skin,” although it was created with opalescent sequins, which gave the “naked” skin a shimmer.

“I think her background in skating helped her with costuming for all shows,” Ms. Currie said. “She approached everything with the idea that the performer had to be able to wear it and move in it.”

As if her television and skating work were not enough, Ms. Dafoe also designed costumes for the Charlottetown Festival, directed by her old friend Alan Lund. Mr. Lund and his dancing wife, Blanche, had met Ms. Dafoe and Mr. Bowden while performing on a train during the early 1940s. The dancers taught the very young pair of skaters how to do lifts.

“Whenever [Alan] did shows that needed costumes, it was always Frances that he called because she made such beautiful costumes,” said Ms. Lund, a friend of Ms. Dafoe for 75 years. “Not only did they look good, but they lasted, because she knew how to get people to sew them so that they stayed together. And she always used the right material. If it was for a dancer, she used material that floated. And she knew the proper cut so that they could lift their arms.”

During the preparation for Mr. Lund’s Les Feux Follets show, which depicted early life in Canada, Ms. Dafoe was asked to prepare costumes, including headdresses for natives. One day Mr. Lund told Ms. Dafoe that he wanted to view the headdresses so that he could see how they worked in his choreography.

She didn’t even have the feathers dyed yet, and told him there would be a slight delay. When he asked for them again two hours later, she promised they would be ready the next morning.

“She had everybody stay up all night dying the feathers and making the headdresses so that Allan could have them in the morning,” Ms. Lund recalled. “But she never told him. It wasn’t like her to say they weren’t done. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘That will be fine.’ She never let us down.”

Ms. Dafoe‘s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1994, she married Paul Bogin, chief operating officer for the Professional Golf Association; he died in April. She leaves her two sons and two granddaughters, Parker and Rowan Melnick. A private funeral will be held Oct. 12, followed by a public reception at 3 p.m. at the Toronto Cricket and Skating Club, where Ms. Dafoe was a lifetime member.

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