If couture could talk: collection charts women's lives

SINGAPORE Wed Nov 11, 2009 12:46am EST

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SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Owning more than 3,000 dresses, many of them designer, many from a era long gone, is a dream for most women. For Sydney-based fashion curator Charlotte Smith, it's a reality.

Smith, who handles the collections of The Fashion Gallery at the Australian branch of internationally renowned school L'Ecole Superieure des Arts et techniques de la Mode (ESMOD), inherited a trove of priceless clothing from her American godmother and renowned couture collector Doris Darnell.

Dating from 1790 to 1995, the clothes -- originals by Dior, Ungaro, Lucile and Chanel, wedding dresses from centuries ago, handbags and plummed hats -- were given to Darnell over the years by friends and acquaintances who knew of her love of dressing up.

But it was only when Smith unearthed her godmother's book of stories about the dresses and the women who wore them that she discovered the true significance of what she had inherited.

"This is not just a collection of dresses, it's a social memoir of sorts," Smith, who moved to Australia after many party-filled years in Paris, London and New York, told Reuters.

"This is a collection of lives, snapshots of women's joys, disappointments, their entrances and exits, their changing role in society. Whether you're a man or a woman, everyone has a special outfit that triggers a memory and Doris was collecting to keep these stories alive. This is what I want to share."

Smith's recently published book, "Dreaming of Dior," showcases 140 outfits from the collection that became her godmother's life-long labor of love.

Beautifully illustrated by Grant Cowan, who teaches at ESMOD, the book is also an entertaining, at times poignant, look into the lives of hundreds of women through the ages.

There's a cotton printed dress, much loved and much mended, worn by a young pioneer woman who followed her husband into the American Wild West; the demure, stripy dress that an Emily Ashley, who lived in the 1880s, was fined for wearing because she did not have a corset on underneath; lavish wedding gowns worn by brides despite their austere Quaker faith and the trousseau of an accomplished seamstress that was never worn because she was spurned a week before her wedding.

The book also reveals snapshots of Smith's own colorful life, and the equally fascinating journey of her godmother who spent the last few decades of her life sharing her collection with the world to raise funds for the Quaker Society of Friends.

Darnell died in March 2006, just before her 90th birthday.

"I never dreamed I would take this on," said Smith, who took over the Darnell collection in 2003.

"She had children, grandchildren, but I think she knew that I would love her collection as much as she did, and that I would do my best to promote it."

In addition to the book -- "Doris would never have dreamed of getting a book out of this," Smith said with a laugh -- ESMOD will hold rotating exhibits of the clothes.

Smith said her goal would be a huge space dedicated to the dresses so that people can come and study them, and the stories they have to tell.

"This has totally changed my life," she said. "I never thought I would get so passionate about a 1940s dress or a gown from the 1800s, but this collection has so many stories to tell that you've just got to listen."

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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