Charlotte Smith’s story is a curious one. In 2004, she inherited her godmother Doris Darnell’s immense collection of clothing, a massive assemblage of garments numbering in the thousands. This figure has grown over the years thanks to bequests from around the world, and now over 6,000 individual pieces make up this private vintage collection.
Charlotte has been working on transforming the Darnell Collection into an educational resource that highlights the importance of construction, design and the diversity of fabrics, as well as social history and the history of fashion. Today the Darnell Collection sits safely at home in Australia, with pieces occasionally brought around the country or beyond for shows and special lectures that Charlotte conducts.
LifeAndStyle: Could you tell us more about the Darnell Collection? Curating such an amazing segment of fashion history must be an incredible experience.The Darnell Collection has given me a rare opportunity to work hands-on with clothing and accessories dating back to 1720 and as recent as 2009. Every aspect of a woman's wardrobe is included in the collection: from undergarments (including crinolines and bustles) to furs (a leopard cape, grizzly bear muffs, mink stoles) and from haute couture (Dior, Chanel, Vionnet, Lucile, Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes, Pucci, Mary Quant and many more) to shoes, hats and handbags.
The collection is now over 6,000 items many of which I originally inherited from my American godmother, Doris Darnell, who began collecting in the late 1930s. In the past seven years I have bought many pieces to wear or display and many hundreds of things have been donated to the collection from around the world.
When I inherited the collection in 2004 I honestly had no knowledge or interest in vintage fashion. But having stunning dresses by the thousands and all the accessories I could ever imagine owning, plus notes on who owned each piece and where it was worn and when, fuelled my new passion to learn as much as I can about fashion history.
LifeAndStyle: Working on turning the Darnell Collection into a proper information hub for fashion seems like a daunting but very admirable task. How do you find additional pieces for the collection? Do you have criteria for specific periods or countries that the clothes must come from?My godmother loved the Victorian, Edwardian and early 20th century fashion so the collection came to me strong in those fashion eras. Many 50s clothes are given to me regularly, so I don't have to source them so much. I have been working hard to add garments and accessories from the mid-60s to present day. I also love to wear 60s and 70s clothes. so I tend to buy things I know will fit me and I love aside from being something important for the collection.
I also source fashion styles and specific fabrics like wool (my favourite fabric) when I know I have an upcoming event that would benefit significantly from new vintage pieces too. I don't choose clothes so much because of the country in which they were made or worn, although that could be an interesting angle in the future.
I buy from vintage shops in each city and country I visit so I always have excess baggage. There are some terrific recycle clothing shops in Sydney were I have found exciting vintage couture. I also buy top end couture from respected international textile auctioneers. There are so many vintage shops now popping up, the choice is quite staggering.
LifeAndStyle: It seems that you often take certain pieces out of the collection for specific events around Australia, but have chunks of the collection ever travelled with you for affairs outside the country?Yes, I was the International guest exhibitor at 'id Dunedin Fashion Week' in New Zealand recently and had 16 vintage outfits modelled on the catwalk. I have hosted intimate talks and catwalk events in the US and am working on one in Las Vegas for early next year. Often I might have one or two dresses in a travelling show like the 'Modern Wool' exhibition that is travelling the world at the moment. I loaned a black wool Balenciaga mini dress to this one.
I am always thrilled to be asked to host an exhibition in international venues. I enjoy the challenge of curating a show using rare and important clothes and accessories to get people rethinking about fashion and its place in history.
LifeAndStyle: What do you feel is the place of vintage clothing in modern fashion? Certain garments and accessories may have entered the mainstream, but do you feel that vintage as a standalone look meshes well with what designers create today?I love to mix vintage with high street or new designer labels. I feel incorporating vintage is a powerful way to create an individual and interesting look. It also allows me to continue to support current designers, fashion houses and the industry in general while acknowledging our responsibility to reuse and recycle. I admire men and women who can dress in a specific era with perfect vintage hair and makeup yet, for me, I prefer a more relaxed approach to wearing vintage and enjoy wearing different decades — often at the same time.
In Australia, many designers such as Willow are adding vintage inspired touches to their designs and some, like Jets Swimwear, have created whole collections of 30s and 50s inspired swimwear.
Both my books, Dreaming of Dior and Dreaming of Chanel are based on true stories about the women who wore the dresses featured in Grant Cowan's evocative illustrations. It's about wearing something and feeling special. For me, what I wear and how I wear it defines me as a person. It never fails that when I wear something vintage, even something small like a brooch, people comment on it and then begin to reminisce. That nostalgia will ensure vintage is around for a long time.
LifeAndStyle: The collection seems to be a thriving, evolving entity of its own now. With its continued growth, do you see yourself adding a third part to the Dreaming series? What does the future have in store for the Darnell Collection?I would love to write another book as part of the series, but I think the next book might be more of a memoir of my life and how inheriting this collection has completely changed it. I am also very keen to write about the fabulous hats in the collection – over 400 – from all eras, made of all materials and in all sorts of shapes.
As for the Darnell Collection, I am enjoying all the travel and hosting exhibitions and talks. I love how the collection has become an entity in itself. In the long term, I would like to set up a fashion resource centre so that the collection can remain privately owned, but has a permanent home where everyone can come to see it for inspiration, education and sheer pleasure. I am also working on a TV series on vintage fashion using the Darnell Collection as the show's resource and as a point of difference.
And, this sounds a bit silly – but when I was growing up I loved my Barbie and Doris would find me scraps of laméfabric or pieces of fur so we could make glamorous clothes for her – so I would love to produce a 'Doris' doll with her own collection of clothes copied from the collection.
I have so many ideas of how to use this collection that all stem from the fact that a collection of this size and importance is very expensive to maintain. Everything I do or any money I make goes towards ensuring the collection remains intact and continues to grow.