Winter Harp founder Lori Pappajohn

Dressed for Winter

Winter Harp's gorgeous Medieval gowns are the work of Langley dressmaker Joanne Chiasson

The soft glow of candlelight against a snowy landscape, the haunting melodies of instruments not widely heard for hundreds of years and crystal clear voices rising in songs of celebration and reverence — in the 19 years since she first performed it, Lori Pappajohn’s Winter Harp has marked the beginning of the Christmas season for hundreds of concert goers across the Lower Mainland.

For many, it’s a chance to reconnect with another time, said the New Westminster-based harpist who, for a number of years, performed the concert in Fort Langley before moving to The Act in Maple Ridge, where they will perform two shows on Dec. 16.

“The concert is about Christmas memories — the warmth and joy of Christmas. We often look out and people have tears in their eyes and we know that something we’ve read or played has stirred a memory.”

But it’s not just the music that transports Winter Harp audiences through time, Pappajohn knows.

It’s the dresses, too.

“Before we even play a note, you’ve already journeyed back.”

Stepping onto the stage in sumptuous Medieval-style gowns, sewn in rich silks and velvets, the artists evoke a sense of romance and warmth that only adds to the Christmasy feeling, said the musician.

And all of it is the handiwork of  Langley seamstress Joanne Chiasson.

“I found Joanne years ago,” said Pappajohn. “I was playing at a fashion show and one of her dresses went down the catwalk. I almost fell off my harp stool.”

Up until that point, the ensemble had been wearing costumes they’d sewn themselves — piecing together curtains with black velvet jackets and skirts they’d pulled off the racks at Value Village.

They weren’t all that bad, said Pappajohn, but of course, they didn’t hold a candle to Chiasson’s colourful creations and the exquisite image they project. Often when the ensemble returns from intermission (having changed outfits) there is an audible gasp from the audience, she said.

“There is no other group that has such incredible costumes.”

Although she was running a successful home-based business in Brookswood when they met, Chiasson credits Pappajohn with shifting her focus from bridal gowns to period costumes — encompassing everything from the Middle Ages to the 1950s.

“Lori was instrumental — no pun intended — for the direction my business took,” said Chiasson, who has been creating costumes for the Winter Harp ensemble for nearly two decades.

“She introduced me to the Medieval period.”

Using historically accurate renderings from books, Chiasson and Pappajohn together design gowns that are as true to the time period as possible.

“If you want a certain colour, it has to look authentic. I’ve learned to dye with tea, coffee, berries. I try to make it as accurate as possible.”

She even goes so far as to stain the gowns’ laces with tea to make them look old.

Asked to pick a favourite, Chiasson settles on the gown Pappajohn is wearing in her latest promotional photographs — shimmering gold, accented with ‘winter teal’ velvet embellishments.

“I do believe the last dress we did together was the most inspirational.”

Over the years, she has created about two dozen dresses for Winter Harp — one or two each year — Chiasson estimates.

Pappajohn serves as  model for all the fittings, but since the women in the ensemble are all about the same size, and thanks to the lacings up the back, they are able to share the costumes.

Whenever Pappajohn tours she is always on the lookout for fabric or accents that will help to create the vision she seeks — that of a pre-Raphaelite painting. Much of her trim, she picked up at the grand bazaar in Istanbul.

“They have these big, beautiful borders you see on the dresses. You can’t get those here,” said Pappajohn.

“I’ve learned to stock up, so I’ve got yards of material,” she laughed.

Nearly 20 years after they met, Chiasson remains grateful to Pappajohn for helping her map out her career path.

“She inspired me to get creative, when I might have taken a different turn.

“It’s been genius — a great marriage.”

Fashion for the Middle Ages

Winter Harp members aren’t the only ones benefitting from Chiasson’s mastery of Middle Ages style.

The Langley couturier once wore one of her own creations to a Medieval feast in an Irish castle.

“I looked around and I was in the only person (apart from the staff) in a Medieval gown and I thought, ‘What is wrong with this picture,’” said Chiasson.

The problem, it turned out, was cost and availability. She left with an order for 19 dresses.

Chiasson has had brides fly in from as far away as Scotland to get fitted for one her gowns.

The reason for their popularity is simple, she said — the dresses are beautiful. They’re unique, ultra-feminine and extremely flattering to any figure.

The corset brings a woman down three full dress sizes, explained Chiasson. And the spiral metal boning she uses allows that to happen without being confining or uncomfortable.

“It cinches in the waist and flows gracefully so that, honey, you are seriously hot in one of these,” she laughed.

“They make woman of all sizes feel beautiful. I see women melt into little girls. It helps them to embrace who they are and love their curves — it’s a whole mindset.”

Discovering such a pleasant niche has allowed Chiasson to expand her small home-based Brookswood business by adding a store in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, where she plans to retire. Angelic Visions is located in Molly’s Lane behind Molly’s Reach, the restaurant made famous in The Beachcombers television series.

• For more information, go to etsy.com and search for angelicvision.

• Winter Harp will perform two shows at The Act in Maple Ridge on Sunday, Dec. 16. Shows begin at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, call 604-476-2787 or go to theactmapleridge.org.

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