Back in fash­ion in

Char­lotte Smith’s world changed when she opened open ned 70 boxes of clothes col­lected by her god­mother. god­mothe er.


Smith cleared a space in her shop and waited for de­liv­ery. “There were 70 boxes, some of them were half the size of a re­frig­er­a­tor box, they were mas­sive,” re­calls Smith. Hav­ing re­solved that she wouldn’t open a box but would con­sign them to stor­age un­til she fig­ured out she would do with them, Smith found she couldn’t help her­self. “So I started with one, and then an­other, and all th­ese in­cred­i­ble things were com­ing out,” she says. Rolled into coils and stuffed into pil­low­cases – “if you lie them flat they crease” – the dresses un­furled in Smith’s hands, scores of them to a box. “I’d be pulling out one dress and go­ing, ‘oh that’s nice’ then pulling out an­other and, ‘wooooh! That’s nice!’ And I’d quickly stuff it back in, so it took me three months to go through the boxes, I had so much stuff,” she says.

Some­where in there was a peach slip­per satin gown which was her god­mother’s first sig­nif­i­cant fash­ion pur­chase. She scrimped and saved to buy the dress for $40, which amounted to nearly half a year’s board at Bryn Mawr, Penn­syl­va­nia, where she was study­ing Clas­sics. She wore it to her first col­lege dance in 1936, on the arm of Howard Dar­nell. The cou­ple mar­ried three months later. Her wed­ding dress, also part of the col­lec­tion, was cause for con­ster­na­tion by the Quaker Elder. Quaker women were sup­posed to dress plainly and mod­estly, and the 2.5m train was deemed too ex­trav­a­gant. Doris agreed to com­pro­mise and cut the train by half.

Af­ter their mar­riage, Doris worked as a school li­brar­ian. Smith is vague about Howard’s pro­fes­sion – “some­thing to do with en­gi­neer­ing”, she of­fers. On their re­tire­ment, Doris de­voted her­self to her grow­ing col­lec­tion, tak­ing it on tour for her “liv­ing fash­ion” talks at schools, mu­se­ums, and on cruises, in­clud­ing on the QEII, do­nat­ing all her fees to the Quak­ers.

The ma­te­rial for her talks came from Dar­nell’s care­fully cat­a­logued records of each gar­ment and its donor. Th­ese were to pro­vide the an­swer to Smith’s dilemma. Hav­ing spent months por­ing over dresses, hats, hand­bags, gloves, jack­ets, Smith fi­nally turned her at­ten­tion to the boxes she thought were of least in­ter­est, con­tain­ing books and files. “I sud­denly re­alised that not only did have I th­ese un­be­liev­able dresses but they all had th­ese lit­tle tags on them with code num­bers, so I could see p92 and I could go to Doris’s donor and mini-bi­og­ra­phy files, or her sto­ries­be­hind-dresses file, or what­ever. I loved fash­ion and de­signer cloth­ing and I loved wear­ing them but I had no idea about the his­tory be­hind them and what was in­flu­enc­ing each decade and so on. So that’s when I re­ally got into it.”

She sold her shop and used the pro­ceeds, com­bined with a be­quest from her late mother’s es­tate, to sup­port her­self for three years while she did as her god­mother had done – toured with the col­lec­tion at char­ity events. And so it came alive again for new audiences – and con­tin­ued to grow. “Ev­ery time I’d go out and talk about my dresses, peo­ple would say ei­ther, ‘that’s a great story’ or ‘that re­minds me of a story’. So it’s al­ways been the story, and (the talks) are sto­ry­telling . . . how one gar­ment that’s made of five pieces of fab­ric can sud­denly bring back an in­cred­i­ble life­time of mem­o­ries for peo­ple.” Even­tu­ally

she drew the at­ten­tion of the me­dia, and an ed­i­tor at HarperColl­ins, who com­mis­sioned the charm­ingly il­lus­trated book about the col­lec­tion, Dream­ing of

pub­lished last month. Mean­while, Smith had con­cluded that the best use for her col­lec­tion would be as a tool to teach the his­tory of fash­ion. Af­ter men­tion­ing the idea dur­ing an in­ter­view on ABC Ra­dio one morn­ing, she had five of­fers from fash­ion schools be­fore the close of day. She even­tu­ally set­tled on a new school which agreed to house and dis­play the col­lec­tion and em­ploy Smith to teach the his­tory of fash­ion. A fran­chise of the in­ter­na­tional de­sign school, L’Ecole Su­perieure des Arts et Tech­niques de la Mode, ESMOD Syd­ney had been open less than a year be­fore there was a change of own­er­ship, fol­lowed swiftly by the ap­point­ment of ad­min­is­tra­tors and the clos­ing of the school early last month. With staff and stu­dents locked out – and Smith’s col­lec­tion in­side – there fol­lowed a stress­ful cou­ple of weeks for Smith while she ne­go­ti­ated with the ad­min­is­tra­tors.

The col­lec­tion has never been val­ued but given the worth of some of the in­di­vid­ual items – the Chanel wed­ding dress alone is worth $30,000 to $40,000 at auc­tion, Smith es­ti­mates – it’s likely to run into hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars, if not mil­lions. Dar­nell had never in­sured be­cause she re­garded the col­lec­tion, with “all of the sto­ries, the glimpses of his­tory’’ as ir­re­place­able.

Smith ac­knowl­edges that with the sale of key pieces she could set her­self up for life, but hav­ing been raised in a fam­ily with a strong phil­an­thropic ethos that was out of ques­tion. “Each of the Diors I have are so dif­fer­ent that to sell one I would lose a very im­por­tant part of that his­tory,” she says. She has sold only one dress – a 1936 Madeleine Vion­net which be­longed to Ruth Meyer, of The Wash­ing­ton Post dy­nasty. “It was in good enough con­di­tion that I could sell it, (but) ev­ery time I touched it an­other lit­tle se­quin would fall off, and I had two other Vion­nets . . . and I have a lot of cloth­ing from (Meyer). I still have plenty of dresses that can tell her story,” she says. With the pro­ceeds, Smith went on a re­search trip to Italy. “So if I do sell any­thing, it would never go into my bank ac­count, it would be to fur­ther the col­lec­tion.”

Rather than a meal ticket, her god­mother’s legacy had given her a role in her adopted home, be­yond moth­er­hood and pro­fes­sional life. “My sec­ond mar­riage didn’t work, and I found it dif­fi­cult be­ing out here, without fam­ily sup­port,” she says. “I had my shop and I had lovely clients, but I didn’t re­ally have a role to play, and I just have to have that. Then out of the blue this col­lec­tion comes along and it’s lead­ing me into some­thing which ties in ev­ery­thing I’ve learnt . . . it’s just been a huge swing to some­thing that I re­ally feel I can con­trib­ute. And that’s very im­por­tant.”

With the col­lec­tion now safe, Smith is plan­ning a new ven­ture with a friend, com­bin­ing cour­ses with a gallery. “I am very philo­soph­i­cal that this is just an­other step to my dream,” she says. “The next stage will be ex­cit­ing.” As she em­barks on this next leg of her jour­ney, there’s at least one ques­tion that’s eas­ily re­solved, and that is: what to wear? Dream­ing of Dior by Char­lotte Smith (HarperColl­ins, $35) is avail­able at the spe­cial price of $26.95 from the News Shop, 31 Way­mouth St, city, from Mon­day.

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