Designing women: Local seamstresses turn fabric into fashion gold
NATCHEZ — When the Krewe of Natchez Indians Queen walked out at the Mardi Gras ball wearing an eight-foot headpiece complete with live pigeons inside birdcages, designer Jessie Davis savored a moment she hadn’t felt since moving back to Natchez.
“I always help the kings and queens get dressed, but this was the first time in 13 years I went out and watched,” Davis said. “This time I got to just sit and watch everyone’s reactions.
“There were a lot of oohs and ahhs.”
Davis, along with several other seamstresses in the Miss-Lou, work countless hours and months in advance to create costumes and dresses that help create memorable moments for those wearing their unique garments.
Whether it’s an elaborate Mardi Gras costume to be shown off at a ball or a hoop skirt for Pilgrimage, these ladies know that each stitch and alteration will be on display for all to see.
After leaving Natchez to attend Freemans Fashion and Design Academy in Chicago, Davis wasted no time in creating a business that gave her the chance to pursue something she loved doing.
“I eat, sleep and drink sewing,” Davis said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m sewing a sheet or a dress, I just love to sew.”
That love helped her start a company in Chicago called Prom Connections, which specialized in creating unique dresses for high school students to wear on their big night.
“We would visit all the schools and host fashion shows to show them everything we offered,” Davis said. “It was literally a one-stop prom shop.”
But after 23 years of living in Chicago, Davis moved back to Natchez in 1999 to be closer to her family when her father died.
Since then, Davis started Jess Fashion and has been working with several Mardi Gras krewes, like the Natchez Indians and the Krewe of Janus, to create elaborate costumes and dresses for the various balls, parades and events.
“I really never got into Mardi Gras until I moved back,” Davis said. “The one I made for the queen this year was definitely the biggest I’ve made.”
To create Queen VII Lekeshia Mercedes Jones’s dress, Davis said she began with a picture of a basic dress and started creating a more spruced up version of it.
But the real craftsmanship came with creating the headpiece, which used a combination of cardboard, Styrofoam board, wire, satin, fake fur and rhinestones.
“I’d say everything all together took about three months to get done,” Davis said. “It was all worth it in the end to see her walk out like that.”
Apart from the Mardi Gras creations Davis churns out each year, she also continues to make and alter prom dresses as well as wedding gowns or any other kind of garment.
But that could soon change, she said.
“Now that everyone has seen what I did for the Indians, I’m sure I’ll be getting calls asking, ‘can you make this for me?’” Davis said laughing. “But I’ll keep doing this until my legs go out or I start losing my eyesight.”
Living the dream
Melba Tuberville didn’t quite understand the concept behind Pilgrimage when she first moved to Natchez in 1984 from Hot Springs, Ark.
But one particular aspect of the Natchez tradition made her want to learn more.
“The one thing I loved was the dresses,” Tuberville said. “Whenever I started sewing for the public, my goal was to someday make those dresses.”
And it didn’t take long for Tuberville’s talents of creating and altering prom dresses and other garments through her business, Melba’s Dressmaking and Alterations, to reach the crowds involved in Pilgrimage.
Nearly 12 years later, Tuberville creates multiple dresses for the annual Historic Natchez Tableaux. At last year’s event, she had 11 dresses on the floor at one time.
“There’s no better feeling than putting in that much work into something and then seeing the finished product on the floor,” Tuberville said. “It’s also rewarding when they’re trying the dress on because you can almost instantly tell on their faces if they like it or not.”
And while she still accepts all kind of work including prom dresses, wedding gowns and other garments, the dresses she makes from scratch for Pilgrimage are what she enjoys the most.
“I was honored to be able to get the chance to start making these dresses because that’s really what I enjoy,” Tuberville said. “I’m just thankful that I’ve never run out of things to do because after Pilgrimage, the prom dresses start coming in and then it just starts all over again.”
Anyone other than Sandra Stokes, owner of San-Jay Creations, wouldn’t know where to start when walking in to her studio on Homochitto Street.
With no particular method to the madness of garments hanging from racks scattered throughout the studio, Stokes said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It doesn’t look like it, but I do have a system,” Stokes said laughing while flipping through one rack of clothes. “Sometimes things will get lost or misplaced, and I’ll have to go searching for something, but that doesn’t happen a lot.”
Stokes, who has been in the alteration business for nearly 40 years, said she first started sowing when she was 12.
“I remember my grandmother died and my grandfather gave me her old sewing machine,” Stokes said. “I was already sewing a little before that, but after that I kind of took off since I didn’t have to wait to use my mom’s machine anymore.
“I guess I’ve been at it ever since.”
And even two weeks before her 72nd birthday, Stokes said she’s doesn’t think she’ll be slowing down any time soon even if she wanted to.
“I should be retired by now, but there’s no one else I can train to take my place,” Stokes said. “I wouldn’t mind training someone, but no one seems to be interested or have the knack for it these days.”
So until that person appears, Stokes said she’ll continue creating costumes for the various Mardi Gras krewes and dresses for Pilgrimage.
“I enjoy the costumes more than anything and just starting from scratch on something,” Stokes said. “People will come in and show me a picture or a sketch of what they want, and I’ll take it from there.”
Stokes said the Mardi Gras costumes allow her to use more shiny and bright material, while the Pilgrimage work must adhere to certain regulations like length and style.
But costumes for both events, along with alterations to regular garments, are what keep the lights on, she said.
“I don’t have nearly as much work as I do during Mardi Gras and Pilgrimage,” Stokes said. “It can just get crazy sometimes because their both around the same time.”