I have to confess that when my American godmother Doris Darnell told me her priceless vintage clothing collection was on its way across the world to me, I was more than a little daunted. Doris’s collection had been a lifetime labour of love for her, more precious than any treasure I knew of, and she had chosen me as custodian.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have predicted how much this precious legacy would change my life, mind lead me to writing my first book, Dreaming of Dior.
It all began when I opened the first box at my home in the Blue Mountains to find an exquisite gossamer silk 1920s evening gown shimmering with the most intricately beautiful beadwork I had ever seen. I had unearthed my first treasure. I was instantly enchanted, as Doris knew I would be.
Doris was the ultimate fairy godmother. When I was growing up near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, I was a regular visitor at Doris and Howard’s townhouse. As soon as I arrived Doris and I would climb the impossibly narrow and steep staircase to the top floor and lose ourselves for an hour or two amid her latest acquisitions and old favourites. For me this was where magic happened, brought alive by Doris’s wonderful stories about the dresses and the women who wore them.
Spanning two hundred and five years, from 1790 to 1995, her collection is a journey through fashion history encompassing famous couturiers like Dior, Chanel and Vionnet. But not one piece was purchased by her. They are all gifts from friends and acquaintances who either knew or had heard of her legendary ‘hobby’. As the Quaker saying goes, every piece was ‘given in love and in trust’. Doris was a Quaker her whole life, and while her passion for clothes and accessories was frowned upon as immodest and frivolous by other practising Quakers, her passion remained as irrepressible as her character.
Doris devoted the last few decades of her life to sharing her collection with the world. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Doris became well known throughout the East Coast of the United States and beyond for her ‘living fashion’ talks, which she would give in museums, college halls and even on cruises around the world, including the QEII, donating her speaking fees to the Quaker Society of Friends.
Doris’s audiences were invariably so enchanted by her shows that they would donate some of their own treasures to the collection. And so the collection continued to grow, more and more stories were added to share, until the baton was passed on to me.
The treasures that lay before me were worth a fortune. Selling them would set me up for life, but enticing as that thought was, I could never consider such a thing or the idea of them being broken up by donation to museums or other collections. I still had no idea what to do with the collection, but somehow, like Doris, I would find a way to share it and to keep it growing.
Then, among the last of Doris’s boxes, I found her catalogue notes of all her stories, of the dresses and the women who wore them. It was then that the true value of what I had been bequeathed hit home. This wasn’t a mere collection of beautiful things, it was a collection of life. Women’s lives. Tiny snapshots of our joys and disappointments, our entrances and exits, triumphant and tragic.
This is how my first book, Dreaming of Dior, was born. It was the perfect way to share these stories, including Doris’s and mine, along with the collection.
The response to my book was beyond my wildest dreams. Strangers came up to me at events or wrote to me, telling how much they loved the stories and the memories they brought back of their own wonderful moments. My only regret is that Doris is no longer here to share the applause.
But the greatest gift from the collection is my new friendship with Doris’s husband, Howard. I will always treasure the lovely handwritten letter he sent me after receiving his copy of Dreaming of Dior: ‘What a fantastic surprise you have given me. The book is spectacular, and for me it is the personal gift of a lifetime.’
I was also delighted and relieved to hear from Doris’s son, Eric, and her granddaughter, Fran, that Doris would be so proud and happy with what I have done for her collection. Also to hear from the daughters of Doris’s friends that they are thrilled their mother’s dresses and stories are included in the book. And, after a twenty-year lull, my father, Noble, now regularly writes Howard and keeps him abreast of what I’m up to.
Most of all, the collection has brought me even closer to Doris. She may no longer be here but I feel she is looking down on all this and thoroughly enjoying the ride with me. And so, in the spirit of love and trust, I - and the inimitable Doris Darnell -open our wardrobe again and share some more unforgettable moments with you now.
P.S. Those of you who have already shared part of the journey with me in Dreaming of Dior will have read the following letter Doris wrote, bequeathing her collection to me. But I have included it again for those who are coming to our story - and stories - for the first time. After all, I often reread it to remind myself of just how lucky I am to have such a wonderful fairy godmother.
You cannot imagine how happy I am to learn that you are thrilled to have me pass on to you my collection of clothing and accessories of other eras.
Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved to dress up and I still do! Family and friends and friends of friends heard of the old trunk in my attic where I stored my dress-up clothes and started adding to my collection as they cleared out ancestral attics and wondered what to do with all that stuff. That’s when my collection really started to grow!
It’s been hard, if not impossible, for me to turn down any gifts, because I soon discovered that I was not just collecting dress-up clothes, but, in addition, each piece was a springboard to history. Each donor told me the story of the woman or man who wore the clothing, fascinating stories of other times, sometimes full of joy, other times grief, sometimes bitterness, other times heartache. In my opinion these stories make my clothing three dimensional and in some odd way the people who wore the clothing come alive again in the telling. I am giving you all the stories so that they can continue to be an extension of each outfit.
You ask me what everything I am giving you is worth if you have to declare a value. I have a hard time with that question. I have never bought a single thing nor has anything been appraised. I am giving you a part of my life. I have been a trusted custodian and I am delighted that you see yourself in that same capacity.
The contents of our home are insured for a modest amount with no mention of my clothing. If our house burned down and we lost everything, all of the stories, the glimpses of history, would have no value without the clothing. Money could not replace what I had lost, so why insure?
If I had to come up with something, I would call my gift to you ‘old-fashioned clothing with stories about the people who wore the clothes’. They have been treasured by me, but never evaluated. I had planned to leave everything to you in my will, dear godchild, but I am 87 years of age and feel now is the time. So here it is with my blessing!
Love, love, Doris
© 2010 Charlotte Smith