Miss Oregon C.C. Barber, wearing Joe Dunbar's gown in the Miss America pageant. Photo by Catherine Fiehn

Dress for success

Despite a few white wedding gowns draped on mannequins in his storefront window on Talent Avenue, The Total Picture owner and clothing designer Joe Dunbar is known in Talent primarily as a picture framer.

But earlier this year, two of Dunbar's gown designs had their national debut. Miss Oregon C.C. Barber wore two of his dazzling, flowy dresses Jan. 30 in the Miss America pageant in a live national broadcast from Las Vegas.

"I was there in Vegas," he said. "That was exciting to see my dress up there on Miss America."

Dunbar, 43, never sought to design attire for the pageant circuit. Rather, the pageant came to him.

After years of designing wedding dresses, he fashioned his first pageant gown four years ago for his niece, Tera Dunbar, who was competing in the Miss Southern Oregon pageant.

The dress caught the eye of Miss Oregon runner-up Cassandra Tolman, who was singing at the Miss Southern Oregon pageant.

"When she saw Tera's gown, she asked me if I could design a gown for her," Dunbar recounts. "I didn't hear from her for a year."

After Dunbar and Tolman got back in touch, he ended up designing Tolman's pageant gowns for the next three years for the Miss Oregon competition.

Barber, her best friend, saw Tolman's dresses at the Miss Oregon pageants and asked Dunbar to design a gown for her.

Barber took an active part in the design.

"Choosing a dress for Miss America proved to be much like what a bride must go through to choose her wedding dress," says Barber, who is from Scappoose.

Dunbar and his assistants talked to Barber directly to try to come up with a design that would suit her best.

They chose white silk for the gown, a color that provided contrast for Barber's dark hair and complexion.

Barber wanted a dress similar to the one she had admired on Tolman in the Miss Oregon 2009 competition, which was a strapless gown with a V-neck and a draped silk, chiffon skirt.

But Dunbar had a few ideas to make the design more complementary to Barber's figure.

"I said, 'Let's do this more shapely,' " he says.

Like many of his designs, her dress was a progression of an earlier design.

He added a crisscross of chiffon on the strapless bodice studded with rhinestones to make the dress show up better on stage and a more dramatic V-neck. The skirt flared more at the bottom with yards of gathered chiffon pouring from the skirt like waterfalls.

Dramatic slits in the skirt, which might have been mistaken as an effort to show off Barber's killer legs, provided her more ease in gliding across the stage.

"We opened the skirt up a little bit with high slits to give her more range of motion," he says. "You want the dress to be full length and on the floor, but you don't want to trip over it when you're walking. Three of the girls tripped over their dresses during the pageant." Barber wasn't one of them.

The skirt design with the flare and extra volume of the chiffon also served to give Barber more of an hourglass figure, he says. Barber is a gymnast and dancer and has a gymnast's figure with narrow hips.

Barber wore the white gown when she received the Miss America swimsuit award. She wore another gown, made of red silk and rhinestones, that Dunbar designed for her dance in the talent competition.

He sewed corsets in the gowns to eliminate the need for a strapless bra, provide a better fit and, hopefully, wardrobe malfunctions.

"For a pageant, you don't wear a lot underneath," he says, "and they don't have a lot of time to change."

It took about a month to design the dresses, with regular visits by Barber for fittings.

While you might not guess it, designing a wedding gown is more demanding than a pageant gown, Dunbar says.

Pageant gowns are similar to costumes.

The detail on a wedding gown is more visible than a pageant gown. A bride is up close to her audience, whereas a pageant contestant is seen from afar, Dunbar says.

"We can lace up a bride in a gown, and we don't have to worry about making quick wardrobe changes," he says.

Dunbar's career began designing wedding gowns at a bridal shop in Portland, where he worked for two years.

Wedding gowns appealed to him because they symbolize a special occasion and a one-of-a-kind day in the bride life.

Likewise, "wedding gowns are more like a piece of art and one of a kind," Dunbar says.

"I don't like to design cookie cutter dresses," he says. "This is a chance for her to get the exact dress she wants. Often brides come in and say, 'This is the dress I like, but I really hate the sleeves.' We can change it to make it her special gown."

He enjoys creating the classic Hollywood look and admires the designs by Bob Mackie.

"That's my ultimate inspiration," Dunbar says. "Bob Mackie did Cher's thing, all those huge costumes, but those aren't the ones I like the most. He actually designed some red carpet designs that were a lot tamer."

Dunbar's custom-made wedding gowns range in price from $850 to $4,000. The Miss America gown cost about $4,000.

He learned his design skills at the now-defunct Bassist College in Portland after graduating from Grants Pass High School in 1986.

But it was his mother, Margaret Dunbar, of Grants Pass, who taught him how to sew. Her dream was to be a fashion designer, he says.

"My mom actually sewed for a living," he says. "There were nine kids growing up. She made our clothes and clothes for her clients."

She also taught him how to draw and paint when he was about 5.

Passionate about drawing, he originally envisioned illustrating sewing pattern books but became interested in fashion design in college.

After two years at the bridal shop in Portland, he returned to Southern Oregon in 1990 to be closer to his family and started working as a framer. Ten years ago, he opened The Total Picture.

Meanwhile, he continued to make wedding gowns.

"I never advertised, but I did family and friends' dresses," he says, "Sometimes people came to me saying, 'I heard you make gowns.' "

In 2003, he designed his wife, Karin Penn's wedding gown, a Renaissance-style gown made of cream-colored beaded lace and gold lamé.

Recently, he joined Medford's Imaging Modeling Development as an instructor. He teaches aspiring models how to walk, eat and conduct themselves.

While he never imagined his gowns would ever glide across the stage at the Miss America pageant, he says he is enthused about the prospect of designing more.

Barber's gowns gave him exposure on the pageant scene, which could lead to more design projects.

"More than half of the girls at Miss America this year were given couture gowns designed especially for them by well-known designers and while Joe isn't quite there yet, I feel privileged to have been the first to wear his design (at the Miss America pageant)," Barber says.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail

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