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.