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Dardina Ashton, a gifted seamstress, dies at 89

DardinAshtleft obit phowas skilled dressmaker.  She not only made her own dresses but made wedding dress her daughter right

Dardina Ashton, left, obit photo was a skilled dressmaker. She not only made her own dresses but made the wedding dress of her daughter, right, as well.

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Updated: July 29, 2012 5:13PM

As a gifted seamstress, a fashionista, and a proud black woman, it was one of Dardina Ashton’s finest moments.

She was at a 1993 Chicago History Museum costume gala, resplendent in a glowing white suit she had made herself, when the guest d’honneur — famed Parisian couturier Christian Lacroix — gave her an admiring once-over and declared, “You look fabulous.”

“He said, ‘I know it’s not one of mine, but you look stunning,’ ’’ said her grandson, John E. De Vine III, who escorted her that memorable evening. “She told him it was Armani.”

It was — by way of Chicago Avenue.

“It was Armani by Dardina,” her grandson said.

Mrs. Ashton — who could whip up any dress after seeing it in a magazine, or viewing it on “Dynasty,” that padded-shouldered extravaganza of 1980s TV — had replicated an Armani suit on the trusty Singer sewing machine at her Near North Side apartment.

Mrs. Ashton, 89, died June 18 at Chicago’s Warren Barr Pavilion.

She was born in New Orleans. Her mother, Serina, was a skilled seamstress. Her father, Arthur Fortineau, was a carpenter. They lived and worked in an African-American neighborhood called Pilotland.

Summers were spent visiting an aunt and uncle in slower-paced Slidell, La.

“We’d hide in tomato patches and get all the tomatoes you could eat. We’d get some salt and eat all the tomatoes,” said her brother, Arthur Fortineau. A river ran behind the land, and “My aunt would come back with a whole bushel of shrimp.”

Mrs. Ashton became an expert Creole cook. Her kitchen cabinets were filled with the pillars of New Orleans cooking, including file powder, oregano, paprika, garlic powder and hot sauce.

No family celebration was complete without her gumbo, laden with crab, shrimp, chicken, and Andouille sausage, hand-carried from New Orleans to Chicago by friends or relatives who visited the South. She was also known for her jambalaya, oyster dressing, sweet potato soufflé, and peach cobbler.

When Dardina was small, an aunt in Chicago told the Fortineaus that visits to Chicago would relieve the childrens’ asthma. “Papa put us on the train and turned us over to the porter,” her brother said. “The porter used to take care of us.”

Eventually, the family moved to Chicago. Young Dardina Fortineau met her future husband, Harris Ashton, at a nightclub.

He worked in railroad freight and in the steel mills of Gary. They lived in the Kenwood area and raised five children. She worked as a bookkeeper, and as a dressmaker to private clients.

Her son, Trelwa Ashton, will never forget the outfit she crafted for him when he was 16. “She made me a black corduroy suit with a vest, and boy, did I think I was sharp.”

She also created a stunning white debutante dress for Val Warner, co-host of ABC-TV’s “Windy City LIVE,” when she made her debut at the Beverly Hills Hotel, according to Warner’s mother, Diane Jackson.

Mrs. Ashton admired the work of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, but Valentino was a special favorite because of his mastery of a rich shade of red that flatters every woman.

Her grandchildren learned to find ways to amuse themselves on trips to Fishman’s Fabrics, 1101 S. Desplaines, or on long car rides in search of just the right buttons.

“She was a little bit of a speed demon,” her grandson said. She had a V8 engine in her Buick Regal, and sometimes, her grandsons persuaded her to make it growl. “We would egg her on at a light to rev her engine. She would drag race somebody for half a block and then say, ‘I can’t do that, boys.’ ”

Mrs. Ashton never went out without makeup and an elegant outfit. “I don’t think she owned a pair of jeans or a track suit until she was in assisted living,” her grandson said.

Three of Mrs. Ashton’s children died before her: her daughters, Helane Ashton and Nazaris De Vine, and a son, Harris Ashton Jr. She also is survived by her daughter DarDina Carney; her sister, Asenith Stampus, and seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be at 10 a.m. Friday, with a 10:30 a.m. Friday funeral mass at Holy Name Cathedral.

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