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Suzanne Mess.Courtesy of the family

Suzanne Mess: Costumer. Artist. Fashion historian. Educator. Born Aug. 2, 1928, in Toronto; died Jan. 22, 2019, in Cobourg, Ont., of heart failure; aged 90.

As a young girl, Suzanne made her own dolls, designing and producing beautiful period costumes for them and taking the first steps along the road she would follow for the rest of her life. She taught herself to sew but always denied being a seamstress.

Suzanne graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1950, then travelled to New York to train in costume design. She was only allowed to hold pins in that first year but soon after found work designing costumes for the New York City Opera. Over the years she would travel far and wide for work. Suzanne could always figure out the correct cut, fabric and style, but she also knew how and when the garments should be worn. Until the late 1980s, she created costumes for operas in Colorado, Dallas, Santa Fe, Chicago, Miami and Vancouver. She designed for the Canadian Opera Company, as well as the Stratford and Banff Festivals, the National Ballet and the CBC. She clothed the greats, including Luciano Pavarotti, Maureen Forrester, Beverly Sills, Louis Quilico, Jon Vickers, Robert Goulet, Christopher Plummer and Gordon Pinsent. She didn’t restrict her talent to humans, either. Suzanne created the costumes for puppets Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock, the stars of the CBC’s early TV broadcasts. If one mentioned any of these A-list names, it often triggered Suzanne to tell a delightful story.

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A sketch of the costume Suzanne Mess created for tenor Jon Vickers in his role as Otello. Vickers later autographed the drawing for Mess.Courtesy of the family.

Suzanne played a major part in the early years of Canadian television. She designed costumes for the first CBC television broadcast and the earliest days of Canadian television, including The Wayne & Shuster Show.

Suzanne retired from the CBC in 1990 and divided her time between the Cedars, her family’s Victorian home in Cobourg and an apartment in Toronto. She was immediately drawn into Northumberland County’s theatrical community. Her formidable knowledge of the history of fashion, her fastidious attention to detail and perfectionism in fitting made every production that she was involved in a feast for the eyes – every scene a painting. Many stories have become part of the legend of Suzanne Mess. Once, to source costume pieces for Northumberland’s production of The Full Monty, she walked into a Toronto sex shop and ordered eight red thongs for men. One can only imagine the look on the faces of the staff.

Suzanne never married, although there were a couple of “close calls.” She loved to entertain, inviting her brother and sister-in-law, niece and nephew and many, many friends to the Cedars, a home filled with antiques and photographs from another age. Vintage shots revealed tennis matches on the lawn by the lake, horseback riding and family parties from as far back as her grandparents’ time. Occasionally there would be a gathering under the summer sun on the broad lawns, Suzanne would be surrounded by friends, who, like her, loved the theatre and its costumes.

Suzanne’s life spanned such a remarkable period of history, from coming out as a debutante to an international career in the arts. Enthusiasm and laughter were always part of her productions and five boxes of her drawings and work have been sent to the National Theatre School in Montreal. Those memories, and Suzanne’s guidance, live on in the work of so many young theatre and costume design artists.

Barbara Henderson is Suzanne’s friend.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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