Well-dressed dreams

Charlotte Smith surrounded by illustrations from her new books. Graphic by Carmen Norgate.
Charlotte Smith surrounded by illustrations from her new books. Graphic by Carmen Norgate.
Charlotte Smith, owner and curator of the acclaimed Darnell Collection and author of two recently released fashion books, is a special guest at this year's iD Dunedin Fashion Week.

To inherit 3000 pieces of vintage clothing covering the best part of 300 years is a rare and wonderful thing; the conundrum lies in knowing what to do with them.

It did not take long for Charlotte Smith, now (in her own words) "a very young 50", to know the path she would take when the collection began arriving at her home in the Blue Mountains of Australia in 2004.

Sent by her American godmother, the intrepid Doris Darnell, the consignments arrived over a span of three months.

Two of the 1920s gowns from the Darnell Collection modelled at a recent Roaring Twenties fashion...
Two of the 1920s gowns from the Darnell Collection modelled at a recent Roaring Twenties fashion show. Photos by Brigitte Grant Photography.
The memory of opening that first box is vivid. Under the top layers of tissue paper was a 1920s evening dress of pale cream gossamer silk and chiffon with a silver beaded bodice.

"I had unearthed my first treasure and was instantly enchanted - as Doris knew I would be."

Smith's enchantment was soon to change to resolve. As a result, the Darnell Collection under her stewardship stands today as Australia's largest private collection of vintage clothing - with pieces dating from 1720 to 1995. It has, through bequests, continued to grow to more than 5500 pieces.

From this remarkable collection she is bringing a trunk of vintage clothes to Dunedin.

Charlotte Smith on stage with one of her models at an Agatha Christie fashion show she staged...
Charlotte Smith on stage with one of her models at an Agatha Christie fashion show she staged recently in Katoomba, Australia as part of a Roaring Twenties weekend. Photo by Annabel Smith, Solitary Photographic.
This includes a selection of 15 beguiling garments from the 1920s through to this decade to delight the audiences of the iD Dunedin fashion shows to be staged over two nights (Friday, April 8 and Saturday, April 9) at the railway station.

The station, given its rich history, is a fitting venue for the clothes, which are also wreathed in stories of the past.

These stories, recorded in a book by her godmother and included with the shipments, brought home to Smith the true significance of her inheritance.

"These were not simply beautiful clothes, but a precious collection of women's lives."

With a degree in art history, she knew it was a collection that needed to be shared.

Further treasures from the Darnell Collection.Photos by Brigitte Grant Photography.
Further treasures from the Darnell Collection.Photos by Brigitte Grant Photography.
"It had a role in fashion history education as well as a design resource," she said.

The collection's potency is strengthened by many international 20th-century fashion designers. Lucile, Madeleine Vionnet, Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Pucci, Jean Muir, Vivienne Westwood, Versace, Dolce and Gabana and Jil Sander are all there; 23 countries are represented.

The clothes run the gamut from pretty day dresses, gorgeous evening gowns, wedding dresses and sportswear, to outerwear, underwear, myriad accessories, shoes, jewellery, buttons, fans, feathers, textiles, wire hoop crinolines and bustles.

For Smith, the past six years have been steeped in researching and now cataloguing the collection. She exhibits it regularly.

"Social history and the history of fashion are important aspects I explore when lecturing or exhibiting the collection. This is aside from the importance of construction, design and the diversity of fabrics."

She's also passionate about preserving, developing and enhancing the collection's ability to educate and inspire audiences to a clearer understanding and appreciation of the art of fashion.

However, all this was just not on the agenda of the young girl who on visits to her godmother Doris' townhouse would climb the steep stairs with her to the top storey where they would immerse themselves in the latest clothes that had arrived and the stories they told.

"The clothes were far too big for me. But I would dress up in the jewellery and hats and play with the handbags. We had so much fun," Smith recalled.

As a child the collection was, naturally about "dress-ups". Even as a young woman she did not wear vintage clothing as part of her everyday wardrobe.

"I often modelled garments at fashion shows for Doris and she did lend me beautiful gowns for special occasions, but that was all."

Today she dabbles in vintage clothes, sourcing them herself and usually mixing them with high street garments for an individual look.

"I do not wear any of Doris' as they are too valuable a resource. However, for evening events I wear vintage gowns, mainly from the '60s through to the '80s that are fitting for the particular occasion," she said.

This awareness of style and design from an early age has left Smith with a respect for designers who retain the integrity of their design aesthetic. She names the house of Chanel and the Australian designer who is also an iD Dunedin Fashion Week entrant, Akira Isogawa, as favourites for making the cut.

From the outset Smith's life was marked by an exotic, worldly quality. She was born in Hong Kong where her American father set up the first American Express office. Her late mother was British. The family returned to the United States where they settled in Philadelphia and Smith's brother and sister were born.

"It was an exciting life with regular holidays to my grandparents near Boston and my mother's family in England's West Country."

Graduating with a degree in art history from Hollins College in South Virginia, she went on to work for art dealers in London, New York and Monte Carlo, before setting up her own business of custom-making paper lampshades for antique chandeliers and other light fittings. She worked first from Paris before moving to England.

With distributors set up around the world, the business opened the way for her to visit many countries, including New Zealand.

"My distributor here was in Parnell in Auckland. But I only visited Auckland once, for 19 hours, so I'm really looking forward to coming to Dunedin and having more time in New Zealand."

The Dunedin visit also represents the first official international outing for garments of the collection.

Thirteen years ago, Smith had come to her Australian home in the Blue Mountains with her former husband, an Australian park ranger. They had met while she was based in Wiltshire in England.

They have a daughter Olivia (13) and although they are no longer married, live a short distance from each other and remain good friends.

"I feel really at home here, although I still sometimes find I have no idea what they're talking about when they bring out their Australian colloquialisms," she said with a laugh.

The Darnell Collection is now her life and as its ambassador her days are a fascinating mix of speaking engagements, lectures, organising pop-up exhibitions and fashion shows of the clothes, as well as book signings and ongoing cataloguing.

The collection is held in storage in Sydney. The clothes are readily accessible for the shows, lectures and other outings, with Smith selecting the most appropriate gowns for the occasion.

Australia has indeed taken the collection to its heart. In 2007 it was enhanced by a bequest of 600 19th- and 20th-century items from Deborah McKeown, of Adelaide, and most recently Australian Wool Innovations donated 75 stunning contemporary Australian designer garments.

Bringing a warm intimacy to the collection are her two recently published books. The first, Dreaming of Dior, was published by Harper-Collins in 2009. This was quickly followed by Dreaming of Chanel, also published by Harper-Collins, last year. They have also succeeded in opening the collection to the world.

Piquant interludes in her own life, which she's led to the full, are scattered intermittently among the pages, along with fascinating glimpses of many other women's loves, joys, hopes, tragedies and losses. A time or two in Doris' life also feature.

The overall magic of the publications is created by the composite picture of Smith's words on the one page complemented by artist and illustrator Grant Cowan's full-page drawings.

Like the women who wore the dresses, each story is different and every gown unique to it. For readers, the books serve up a feast of not only fashion but of eras, times and places. Echos of our own lives may be found among them and memories stirred.

A Quaker from Pennsylvania, Doris Darnell had always loved dressing up. This was the catalyst for a collection which she built up over 70 years.

"Doris did not buy one piece. All were given to her by friends or others from around the world who had heard about her hobby and knew they had found a good home for the clothes."

But she also viewed the social history behind the items as valuable as the items themselves.

Even in the '70s and '80s when Doris was giving "living fashion talks" around the eastern United States and on cruise ships, including the QE2, the collection remained a hobby.

At aged 87 she wrote to her goddaughter after sending her the collection. An excerpt from the letter, which is included in the forewords of the two books reads: "I am giving you a part of my life. I have been a trusted custodian and I am delighted you see yourself in that same capacity ..."

Doris Darnell died four years ago. But, in a place in the world far from east coast America where it all began, the Darnell Collection, its garments and their stories are thriving. She would be well-pleased.

See her
While in Dunedin as a guest of iD Dunedin Fashion Week, Charlotte Smith will be signing her two books at Paper Plus in the Golden Centre Mall from midday to 2pm on April 6.
• She will also give a talk at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on April 8 at 11am. (Entry to her talk is by gold coin donation and no bookings are required.)
• Tickets, available from Ticket Direct, are still available to iD Fashion Shows at the Dunedin Railway Station on April 8 and 9.


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