But all I could think after my American godmother Doris Darnell told me her invaluable legacy was on its way across the world to me was: ‘What on earth am I going to do with it?’
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. I was simply overwhelmed.
That is, until the first box arrived at my home in the Blue Mountains. I peeled back the packing tape, pushed aside layers of white tissue and caught my breath at what lay inside. It was a gown of gossamer silk in the palest cream with silver beads glistening over and beyond the bodice; panels of frothy chiffon slipped through my hands as I raised it to the light. I had unearthed my first treasure. I was instantly enchanted, as Doris knew I would be.
For the next three months Christmas came every day. Out came strapless ballgowns with vast, sumptuous skirts of taffeta and moiré silk, velvet hats bedecked with exotic plumes, organdie party dresses in every style and hue … and every stitch, every sequin, ribbon and silk petal reminded me of Doris.
When I was a child growing up in Philadelphia, Doris was the ultimate fairy godmother. Tall and elegant, flamboyant and utterly charming, she was exotic and unpredictable in a thrilling way. She always dressed in clothes from a time long ago, swishing bustle skirts, lace blouses and trailing feather boas. Clothes that no one else wore, and no one else could wear with quite the sense of drama that Doris did.
I grew up thinking everyone had a special room in their house full of nineteenth-century hats and crocodile handbags, and that every woman had - or should have - wardrobes and trunks filled with rainbows of shimmering gowns.
Each time I visited Doris, the two of us would climb the impossibly narrow and steep staircase to the top floor of her townhouse 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. Her eyes would sparkle as she recounted the adventures of 1920s flappers, Edwardian ladies at high tea, new brides, debutantes and pioneer women. And it is these stories that make her collection unique.
Doris’s collection is a spellbinding journey spanning two hundred and five years, from 1790 to 1995, and encompassing famous couturiers like Lucile, Madeline Vionnet, Dior, Galanos and Jean Muir, but not one bit of it 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 the elders of her religion, her passion remained as irrepressible as her character.
In the spirit of love and trust, 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. Her audiences were invariably so enchanted by her shows that they would donate some of their own treasures to the collection, from a great aunt’s pair of Victorian dancing slippers to the latest designer gowns by Chanel and Dior. 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. Over the years, Doris had loaned me some of these gowns to wear, for a ball in Oxfordshire, a wedding in Monaco … I had so many stories I could add too.
Then, among the last of Doris’s boxes, I found her catalogue notes - the notes of all her stories, of the dresses and the women who wore them. As I pored over Doris’s words - her wit, wonder and wisdom - 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 - and sometimes tragically hilarious.
And so, in the spirit of love and trust, I - and the inimitable Doris Darnell - share some of those moments with you now.
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
© 2009 Charlotte Smith
Every Dress Tells a Story
Dreaming of Dior
Every Dress Tells a Story
Then she discovered that she had inherited a priceless vintage clothing collection from her American Quaker godmother, Doris Darnell.
When the boxes started arriving, they were filled with more than three thousand pieces dating from 1790 to 1995, from Dior and Chanel originals to a dainty pioneer dress.
But when she unearthed her godmother’s book of stories, the true value of what she had been given hit home. This wasn’t merely a collection of beautiful things; it was a collection of lives. Women’s lives. Tiny snapshots of our joys and disappointments, our entrances and exits, triumphant and tragic.
This is a book for any woman who knows a dress can hold a lifetime of memories.
Charlotte Smith is Curator of The Fashion and Textile Gallery in Sydney which is also home to The Darnell Collection, the 5000 piece vintage collection Charlotte inherited from her godmother, Doris Darnell. Born in Hong Kong and raised in the United States, Charlotte has a degree from Hollins College in Art History and has lived and worked in America, England, and France for Impressionist art dealers. She moved to Australia in 1998 and opened a shop selling French country antiques. Charlotte has one daughter.
Grant Cowan has worked as an illustrator on magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and Red magazine. He studied fashion design and lived in London before moving to Australia to teach fashion illustration . Grant is a freelance fashion illustrator and works with fashion schools in Sydney.