December 8, 2010 / 4:38 AM / in 7 years

Couture trove an ongoing adventure, full of tales

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - An evening gown embroidered with gold thread. A silk batik kaftan. A wedding dress made for a beloved niece. The stories of women’s lives each has to tell.

Australian fashion curator Charlotte Smith immediately fell in love with a collection of more than 3,000 dresses and accessories -- many designer originals -- she inherited from her American godmother, a renowned couture collector, six years ago. But she had no idea how her life was going to change.

“I’d never even considered vintage clothing before. Vintage clothing was used clothing, it was other peoples’ clothing,” Smith told Reuters.

“That was my initial impression and it remained that way until it arrived and I started pulling out the collection. It’s been quite an adventure.”

Now the collection, dating from 1790 to the present and including originals by Dior, Ungaro, Lucile and Chanel, has grown to 6,000 pieces and Smith has published two books chronicling stories of the dresses and the women who wore them, including the new “Dreaming of Chanel.”

Many of the tales were written down in a book by Smith’s godmother, Doris Darnell, that came to Smith along with the original collection. All are true.

“I think there’s something about stories about fashion and dresses, you have the idea of fantasizing about wearing them. It’s part of being the scene -- not jealousy, but putting yourself into it in a simple and inexpensive way,” Smith told Reuters from Australia, where she moved after a busy life in Paris, London and New York.

“It’s like men and sports. They’re always sort of fantasizing about making the goal that, you know, wins it for their team and their country.”

“Dreaming of Chanel” follows “Dreaming of Dior,” both filled with drawings by fashion illustrator Grant Cowan.

Colorful illustrations of dresses and accessories are paired with brief written vignettes, by turns bright, bold, demure and romantic, to tell the tales of 140 outfits from the collection.

There’s the blue silk cocktail dress given to Darnell by a man who appeared at her door, saying his late wife had loved the dress and he had loved her in the dress.

Or the white silk bridesmaid’s dress that caused a scandal with its extravagance -- velvet trim at collar, cuffs and bodice -- at a Quaker wedding in 1870.

And the 1970s butter-soft fawn colored kid leather trousers and halter top ensemble, apparently by one of Elvis Presley’s favorite designers, worn by a classmate of Smith’s at Hollins College in Virginia -- an outfit that Smith said she might choose as a favorite to wear herself.

While Smith said the evolving social history shown by the changes in women’s dress was a significant part of the book, her main goal was to simply share stories of the clothes she loves.

“I get asked a lot about why we didn’t want to use photographs. The reason being that we wanted to keep it beautiful and to keep that sort of nostalgic kind of fantasy, dream quality,” she said.

“As soon as you have a photograph, that’s it -- it just ends any sort of fantasy and the story has less impact.”

Parts of the collection have been displayed in temporary exhibits and may be seen at www.darnellcollection.com/

Editing by Paul Casciato

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