By Carla Caruso, www.diamondsandwhirls.com
Charlotte Smith‘s life story reads like a Hollywood script. Born in Hong Kong and raised in the US, she lived her life to the full in London, Paris and New York including hobnobbing with the likes of Princess Diana and the Sultan of Penang – before settling in Australia’s Blue Mountains.
Her relatively quieter life here was shaken up when she discovered she had inherited a priceless vintage clothing collection from her American Quaker godmother, Doris Darnell. Hundreds of boxes began arriving, crammed with more than 3000 treasures, dating from 1790 to 1995. These included originals by Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga to wedding dresses and a pioneer woman’s best and only dress. The inheritance has since been turned into Smith’s own book, Dreaming Of Dior (HarperCollins), which includes her godmother’s stories about the women behind the dresses plus, a few of Smith’s own glamorous tales!
The book’s fashion illustrations are by done by Grant Cowan, who has worked for magazines including Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour.
How did Dreaming of Dior come about?
Really it was an incredible break! I couldn’t get my (fashion) collection recognised, because I’m not Australian and the clothing is predominantly not Australian. So, people didn’t understand what I was doing. I thought the only way I’m going to get this collection known is if I go out and do lots of things that bring awareness to it.
So, I started doing a lot of talks with places like the National Trust, and every time I’d do a talk, it would get a mention in the papers. Jo Butler, who is a senior editor at HarperCollins, had obviously seen a story about how I’d inherited this collection and she watched the story for about a year. Then, she finally approached me last August and said, have you ever thought about writing a book? It’s really exciting to see the whole thing now bound and covered!
You describe your godmother, Doris, as a ‘Quaker’. Explain.
Quakers are Christians, but they don’t believe in God. They believe that the spirit of God around them moves them to do what they do. So, that’s where the word, Quaker, comes from – that they quake at the thought of God. They’re really the (Religious) Society of Friends. And, they’re pacifists. It’s actually a really sensible kind of religion. They tolerate all religions and they welcome everyone into their society. There are a lot of Quakers in Australia – the largest group in Tasmania has over 1000 registered Quakers.
Your godmother seemed very forward-thinking for her time.
She was very Quaker in her philosophies and loved everybody and people trusted her. That’s why I think a lot of people gave her their treasured clothes. But, she was also slightly rebellious in the sense that Quakers are not meant to covet anything and clothes are considered frivolous. So, to be a fashion follower is not something that most Quakers understand.
Doris was the most charming woman though and very confident. Not in an egotistical way, but in a way that she knew what she did made her happy, and so, people enjoyed her stories and what she was doing.
She agreed to be my godmother, because she was a friend of the family – although, that was another anomaly, being a Quaker who didn’t believe in God!
Would you agree you and your godmother are similar in nature?
When my godmother died (at 89, three years ago), I went over to America just after and had a long conversation with her daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth told me all these things that I didn’t know and it actually made me quite sad! I never (fully) realised the relationship Doris had with me.
Apparently, Doris had always dreamed of being a bit of a traveller and getting into adventures. Some of the things I got up to – they were all above board, but they were a bit wild and wacky and I know my parents had heart attacks sometimes!
Doris’ daughter told me that Doris lived what she dreamed her life of being through me – from my adventures – which I didn’t realise at the time. But (looking back), she always kept in touch when I was travelling and she’d always send me dresses. I didn’t realise how much she longed to travel. I think that’s why she got so interested in women’s stories about their adventures. She didn’t have that opportunity, so she was living that dream through other people and their stories.
What is your favourite personal story from the book?
Probably the Guy Laroche green dress story, when I’d gone to Monte Carlo and met Prince Albert. As soon as you meet a prince, the social doors suddenly go flying open! I was offered a job working for a Monte Carlo art dealer, who also had a gallery in Paris. He wined and dined me and I met all his incredibly rich customers, who were all having their summer holidays in Monte Carlo. And, he would buy me clothes.
It was the most fantastic adventure not because it was romantic. He was such a creep! But, I got myself into such a mess of a situation that it was actually quite funny to get out of. There were adventures that were way out of my league with this super, super rich crowd of people. They had no interest in me working as their little receptionist – it was all about being a mistress and things like that! But it was actually quite classic. That whole summer in Monte Carlo was pretty fun. That’ll be something I’ll write about later in more detail!
Will you pass on Doris’ collection one day?
I hope so. My goal is to establish Australia’s first purely designed, sought-out fashion museum. I’ve got a small one going at the moment (at ESMOD), but what I’d love to have is something similar to the Fashion Museum in Bath in England, where it’s just for the history of fashion. It would be huge! That would be my goal.
Smith currently has an exhibition of 29 dresses from her book, Dreaming Of Dior (HarperCollins), on show at The Fashion Gallery at ESMOD Australia in Sydney. Also on display are letters and photos from previous owners of the dresses. Visit www.esmod.com.au.
Available now: HarperCollins RRP$35.00
Author photo credit: Steve Millington
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- Illustrations | | 18 June , 2012