‘Fashion history and social history are intertwined.’
– Charlotte Smith
I recently had the pleasure of touring the exhibition Flora and Fauna – The Nature of Fashion at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, and interviewing vintage collector, author and curator Charlotte Smith.
Smith, author of Dreaming of Dior and Dreaming of Chanel, is interested in social history as seen in fashion through the ages, and believes ‘every dress tells a story’ about the woman who wore it and why, giving us insights into social history and women’s experiences. She inherited the Darnell Collection from her godmother Doris Darnell in 2004 and has crafted it into one of Australia’s most important vintage collections, and what is considered the largest private vintage clothing collection in Australia.
Smith was gracious enough to answer some questions about the exhibition:
Welcome to Victory Lamour. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the Flora and Fauna exhibition and how it came into being?
I have always longed to host an exhibition of my collection in the Blue Mountains, and as soon as I saw the newly built, world class Cultural Centre in Katoomba, I knew that this was the perfect venue. I was aware this would be the first time a fashion exhibition would be held in the Blue Mountains so I was conscious I had to have a theme that was relevant to an area renowned for its natural beauty and World Heritage status, and yet one that would showcase the diversity of my collection.
What is it about the social history of fashion that fascinates you?
A dress is always more than just a dress! Along with the dress, what intrigues me are questions such as: When and where was it worn? And why? Where it was bought? Was there an adventure or misadventure while wearing it? What does the pattern say? Is the colour iconic for the decade? What type of fabric is it made from? etc. All of these questions and answers make up the provenance, the bones, of that dress.
When I look at something in my collection I always find myself referencing other aspects. This might include a world event like war or the sinking of the Titanic. It might be a rock concert like Woodstock or man landing on the moon. I put myself in that moment in time when the dress was made and worn and think about the house or town in which the woman lived. This helps me understand the psychology of why something was fashionable. It also helps me build a bigger picture of where and what was influencing fashion. Fashion history and social history are intertwined.
You spoke of the challenges you faced when you first inherited the collection and brought it in to Australia…
The first challenge I had was getting the collection past very scrupulous quarantine agents in Sydney who were on the lookout for vermin which might have infested some of the more extraordinary items I was bringing in. Things like grizzly bear fur muffs, stuffed Birds of Paradise and capes made of peacock feathers. I knew these items were legal to import, as they were 100 years old, but I didn’t know what condition some of them were in. Luckily, every single thing passed Quarantine’s inspection. I know this because of the bright blue and orange tape stuck on everything!
Over the past eleven years, I have become tenacious in finding a reason to build my collection as one of the largest, most diverse and important private collections in the world. I have worked hard in branding the collection as high-end and significant rather than just a collection of vintage clothing. The way I see my collection continuing to be relevant in the world is by turning it into a cutting-edge fashion resource. I see the collection as a fashion archive for global companies eager for inspiration. I also see this direction as a way to keep the collection financially sustainable.
You have a beautiful 1950s Dior hat on display in the exhibition (above). Was this hat and the box among the original pieces you inherited through the Darnell Collection and did customs stamp that beautiful hat box with a sticker? If so, it was well hidden.
The Dior ‘Camellia’ hat was bought from a millinery dealer, Circa Vintage Hats, who was exhibiting at a vintage fair in Sydney a number of years ago. It is one of three very special Dior hats I have in the collection. This one is the most valuable because it has a Dior Paris label, made when Christian Dior was still designing and overseeing everything in production, and one for Saks Fifth Avenue. The hat would have been purchased at a private viewing in Paris organized by the House of Dior for retail buyers like the one from Saks who chose this hat to sell in a Dior licensed boutique inside the Saks department store.
Currently, I am working with the archivist at the House of Dior Haute Couture in Paris who emailed me to say she was asking every private collector and every museum worldwide to document any Dior items they have in their possession. Each Dior item in my collection – I have 5 dresses, 1 jumpsuit, 3 hats and 2 pairs of shoes dating from 1948 to 2010 – is being photographed and written up with specialized text noting construction, fabric and design details. I am hoping the archivist can tell me a bit more about the hat. For instance, why Dior chose a Camellia flower which is generally regarded as Coco Chanel’s logo.
As for the hatbox, yes, this was one custom officials checked and then unceremoniously marked with bright blue and orange sticky tape! We carefully hid their ‘stamp of approval’ by pushing the box up close to the wall!
Can you tell us a bit about the exquisitely dyed scalloped 1960s dress on display? (Pictured above, at left.)
This fabulous dress is by Philadelphia born fashion designer, Tina Leser who studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts as well as the Sorbonne in Paris. Her well-articulated style was formed during her childhood when she travelled the world with her parents. This gave her a lifelong passion for ethnic patterns and textiles.
Her initial foray into fashion began in Honolulu where she opened her first boutique in 1935. She sold designs made from fabric she hand blocked using prints inspired by her world travels. Leser was more inclined to design daywear and informal outfits like playsuits although this beautiful dress attests to her skills in producing eye catching semi-formal hostess gowns.
Tina Leser’s skill as a designer is visible in this dress, too. Each scallop in the sleeve and skirt hem has been hand-cut and stitched. Without doubt, every detail has been overseen by Leser. What makes this dress so extraordinary is the sophisticated technique of printing with vibrant dyes on two very different types of fabrics. The bodice of the dress is made with sheer silk organza while the skirt is made with heavy ribbed silk cord. Both would have taken dye differently, but somehow Leser was able to match the colour of both fabrics so that only upon close inspection can you see the vast difference in textile textures and weights.
You described the formal cotton 1950s day dress on display (above) as something Betty Draper would have worn. Do you think the TV show Mad Men caused a revival in vintage and the midcentury period, and if so, will it last now that the series has ended? Do we need popular culture to remind us of our history and the useful and beautiful things waiting in second hand and vintage shops?
I definitely think Mad Men made wearing fifties dresses cool, but I don’t think the end of the series will make any difference to the popularity of vintage. We still have Hollywood stylists who put their celebrity clients in vintage on the red carpet to ensure the story of vintage is alive and lusted after.
What I do think is wonderful about television shows like Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and even Father Brown, is the incredible attention to detail and the superb re-creation of fashion in the eras. When you get it right it looks great. When it looks great people imagine themselves wearing it and the trend begins. What Mad Men has done is show how elegant women looked in the fifties and how dressing with care and with attention to the finer details makes for a beautiful presentation.
Whether women – or men – want to recreate the look with real vintage originals or with reproductions is up to them, but what I like so much about this current Fifties revival is getting women to move away from sloppy dressing and into clothes that flatter and, most importantly, empower them.
Can you tell us what we can expect at the upcoming talks for this exhibition?
The public programme is very exciting and something I enjoyed building. I asked my friends and colleagues in the industry to join me for a number of talks. The first one on the 26th September will look at fashion from a media, museum and muse point of view and will involve four top fashion industry professionals including the iconic Jenny Kee. The second panel discussion on 17th October is titled ‘Fashin’s Sway on the Arts’ and will include respected and influential creativse in the arts who will discuss how fashion influences or affects what they do.
I am also excited to host a talk about Dior and his muse – the private gardens at his family home in Granville, France. Almost seven years ago to the day, my daughter, who was 9 at the time, and I spent a weekend in Dior’s hometown in Northwest France. The experience of wandering through the rose gardens smelling the scent of thousands of roses that all influenced Dior’s various perfumes was an experience I’ll never forget. Inside his family home, a substantial pink brick manor house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, we saw a display of dresses by Marc Bohan, the Head of Dior for thirty years, including flowing and glam katftans worn by Princess Grace. I will reminisce about this.
Having the legendary David Stratton involved will also be a highlight. His reflections on the life of Orry-Kelly as he interviews the movie’s director, Gillian Armstrong, will be insightful and wonderful.
I hope everyone joins my illustrious friends and I for this series.
Thank you, Charlotte.
When clothing designs save lives:
I recently attended the panel discussion for this exhibition, From Museum to Media to Muse: Australia’s Fashion Story (below). It was a fascinating panel. They reflected on how important Australian fashion is to museums and why, and how Kee has successfully woven her passion of Australia’s flora and fauna into her collections. Towards the end, Smith surprised Kee by bringing out two models wearing her designs. Unexpectedly, Jenny Kee took one look at the cardigan, pictured at left, and said that exact design had saved her daughter’s life.
Jenny Kee had been wearing that same cardigan design the day of the Granville Train disaster, and has wrapped her baby daughter in it, saving her in the crash. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
I took this picture just before she shared the story:
Upcoming talks and film screenings:
Lunchtime Talk – Dior’s Muse
Saturday 10 October, 11:30am – 12:30pm
Charlotte Smith presents a timeline of Dior’s influence on and legacy within the House of Dior since it was founded in 1946. The stunning gardens surrounding Dior’s family home in Granville played an important role in defining the Dior aesthetic. Charlotte will explore how each Head of Design at Dior reinterprets this profound floral inspiration.
Film screening of Rear Window (1954) and introduction by Charlotte Smith.
Saturday 10 October, 1:30pm – 3:30pm
Join us with Charlotte Smith as she introduces the screening of the 1954 Hollywood film The Rear Window featuring Grace Kelly in costumes inspired by Dior’s New Look by one of the most prolific costume designers of the 20th century and winner of eight Academy Awards, Edith Head.
Fashion’s Sway on the Arts
Saturday 17 October, 11:00am – 12:30pm
Whether painting a famous Australian, blending elements of Australian flora and fauna into wearable art, capturing nature and fashion through the lens, or curating exhibitions reflecting the uniqueness of Australia’s artistic community, three prominent Blue Mountains artists and the Exhibitions Manager at Blue Mountains Cultural Centre discuss their personal and professional work ethos in the context of fashion with host, Charlotte Smith, Owner and Curator of The Darnell Collection.
Join Brigitte Grant, Medlow Bath based photographer who specialises in portraiture, fashion and landscapes; Mathew Lyn, renowned portrait painter from Blackheath; Christine Thompson, milliner whose hats are a sought-after accessory for the well-dressed; and Sabrina Roesner, Exhibitions Manager at Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, for an insightful discussion.
Director’s Talk by Gillian Armstrong and screening of excerpts from WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED (2015).
Saturday 17 October, 1:30pm
Join us with film critic David Stratton as he introduces acclaimed filmmaker Gillian Armstrong who will discuss and show excerpts of her revealing documentary of Golden Age Hollywood’s most celebrated designer Orry-Kelly in WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED.
Orry-Kelly, born in Kiama NSW is the winner of three Academy Awards and responsible for the costumes of Hollywood’s most glamorous actresses in films as iconic as Some Like It Hot, Casablanca and An American in Paris. Orry-Kelly was head of Warner Brothers costume department during the richest period of American film history.
Tickets per event: $20/$15 InSight Members – includes Gallery entry. Bookings essential at Reception or 4780 5410.
The exhibition runs from 12 September to 1 November, 2015.