14 November, 2010


Question: Can you talk about the Darnell Collection?
Charlotte Smith: The Darnell collection actually began almost 80 years ago when my American godmother, Doris Darnell, started wearing her mother and grandmother's clothes and people would see her wearing these clothes, which way back in the 1930's was quite an unusual thing to do and they would say "my mother, grandmother or aunt has something similar to that, would you like their clothes?" It started in a very innocent way and when the clothes were given to her, she'd ask them to perhaps tell a story about where the garment was worn or about the family. Doris Darnell always said she wasn't so much collecting clothes but she was treasuring garments that other people had treasured and tried to keep their story going. It wasn't until she was given the Victorian clothes, which are tiny, that it turned into a collection rather than things she could wear. Doris Darnell would still insist that she have a story to go with the garment and she would love really glamorous clothes. I have ended up with a massive collection of couture, evening and glamorous dresses and accessories, all with stories.  I inherited the collection seven years ago and when it arrived it was 1,200 kilograms of clothes, there were about 3,500 pieces. The collection contains everything you could ever imagine belonging in a woman's wardrobe such as hats, shoes, hat pins, jewerelly, wedding dresses, evening dresses- everything you could imagine! I also have men's and children's clothing. I'd say the collection is now close to 6,000 pieces, I practically have every major designer represented, except for a few from the early 1900's. All the big time designers including Chanel and Dior are represented.

What makes my collection so unique and rare is the fact that many of the things in the collection have come with documented stories, I either have photographs of the person wearing it or I have wonderful letters written to Doris by the donor, even personal letters that were handed to Doris along with the garment and accessory.

My collection is far beyond a collection of vintage clothing, it is a collection recording social history and the earliest piece is from 1730, which is a young woman's handbag embroidered in wool. The collection starts from about 1730 and then my garments started about 1820 and go all the way up to the most recent pieces given including 75 designer garments made in Merino Wool by Australians, these were donated by the AWI (Australian Wool Innervations). I also have pieces by Akira, Jayson Brunsdon, Josh Goot and Michelle Jank.
People realise this collection is actually one that is going to be kept private, in the sense that it can be used in many different ways, unlike museum collections which tend to get locked into this bureaucratic system of not being able to be seen, very often. The collection is a whole, it represents 24 different countries, around the world and I think there are almost 280 different donors, who have now given to the collection. I buy a tiny bit, I unfortunately don't have the budget, to buy much. I do buy clothes, which I wear. I don't like wearing outfits from the collection that have come in with a story as I feel that if I ruin the dress or something happens, it's such a big part of the collection as a whole. I buy very glamorous, slender hostess gowns that you see being worn in the 60's and 70's- I love that look. I have my favourite designers that whenever I see things, I try to wear them. I love Valentino and modern designer Roberto Cavalli. Most of the hostess gowns, that I have bought, have the most fabulous patterns in the fabric. A lot of the gowns have come from Italy, no-name designers but with beautiful fabrics. This collection is absolutely massive now and what's exciting about it is that it is so enormous that it covers so many different aspects of fashion, whether it's the mini-dress era or it's the Edwardian feathers and hats or lace from the mid-1800's, whatever you want to see, it's in the collection.

Question: How did the Doris Darnell collection inspire Dreaming of Chanel and Dreaming of Dior?
Charlotte Smith: It was mainly the stories behind the garments. Harper Collins approached me about writing the book and they said that they had been following my story for a year and they were sure my story about a woman who inherits 3,000 dresses, was a perfect story. When I was working with the editors and the publishers at Harper Collins, every time we'd go look at a dress, because we didn't know which angle to take, I'd say "I've got to tell you the story behind this dress!" Suddenly, they realised their were these wonderful little short stories that made the dress or accessory come alive and that's why we decided to write the stories behind the dresses. The reason we kept them as short stories was that each one is so unique and individual we wanted people to read that story, look at that dress and move onto another dress and story rather than combining it into a novel experience.

Question: Why do you think other females will love Dreaming of Chanel?
Charlotte Smith: It's the type of book that is very nostalgic, in a way. Every woman has had a dress, a pair of shoes or a garment that the minute they look at a photograph of them wearing it or when they see the piece in their wardrobe they have a flashback or poignant memories and it reminds them of something or somebody. I don't think I've ever met somebody who can't remember one single piece of clothing that didn't trigger this kind of memory. The idea with all the different decades, that we have represented in the book, is that it doesn't matter if you were living in that decade and can remember back or if you were much younger, you will still think 'wow, isn't that a romantic time'.  There is nothing earth shattering in the stories, they are just lovely reminisces about women who remember that special dress. Anybody can enjoy the book, you don't have to be a historian or wildly into vintage fashion which is why I think both the story and the illustration is so important, in this book.

Question: The collection would be like a dream come true for you!
Charlotte Smith: Yes! It is, when you think about it. I do have a very enviable opportunity because I have wonderful dresses that I have pulled from the collection, that didn't have stories with them that I wear or things that I buy. It is very exciting to think that if I ever need a piece of jewellery or a fantastic hat, I have these incredible opportunities to wear these things. Although, you have to realise we are looking at 6,000 pieces, many of which are very, very valuable in stories and maintenance, it's not all about jumping into a room and thinking 'what am I going to wear today?' I have learnt a huge amount about fashion history because of this; I now travel around the country and go overseas doing talks and participating in the fashion world. It is a dream.
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