Wednesday, March 3, 2010

fabulous collation of fashion

Niki Bruce reviews Dreaming of Dior and wishes she had a fashion godmother.

SOME people have all the luck. Charlotte Smith, for example, had the luck to be the goddaughter of Doris Darnell, a lovely lady who for many, many years has collected fabulous pieces of fashion.

She was, in fact, Charlotte Smith's "fashion" godmother, since Smith's luck, specifically, was to be the recipient of Ms Darnell's wonderful collection, which has now been turned into a lovely, wee book – Dreaming of Dior.

The book is populated by a collection of delicate illustrations from British artist Grant Cowan and each illustrated dress is teamed up with a description of the garment or its previous owner's experiences while wearing it.

As Smith says in the preface of Dreaming of Dior:
"Then, among the last of Doris' boxes, I found her catalogue notes – the notes of all her stories, of the dresses and the women who wore them. As I pored over Doris' words – her wit, wonder and wisdom – the true value of what I had been bequeathed hit home. This wasn't a mere collection of beautiful things, it was a collection of life. Women's lives."
With her realisation of the sociological importance of her godmother's collection, Smith decided to collate the garments and their matching notes together into this look at women across the years.

While the dresses and the stories of their formers owners are fascinating, the story of Doris Darnell is just as interesting, and quite obviously, just as important to Smith's decision to produce this book.

Mrs Darnell was a life-long Quaker, but she is also described by Smith as the "ultimate fairy godmother". "Tall, elegant, flamboyant and utterly charming, she was exotic and unpredictable in a thrilling way," writes Smith.

The collection covers garments from 1790 to 1995 and includes famous names like Lucile, Dior, Galanos and Jean Muir but also has handmade pieces from the women who wore the clothes. None of the garments were bought specifically for the collection but, rather, were donated by friends, family and acquaintances.

Some of the stories that accompany the images are touching – like that of Mrs Edmund Williams, another staunch Quaker, who in 1900 had made for herself a beautiful lime-green silk gown with striking black velvet trim; due to her strict religion she never wore the gown but said that the enjoyment it gave her was worth every penny spent.

Other stories are family ones where Smith talks about wearing dresses lovingly – and bravely, I would think – loaned to her by Mrs Darnell. On one such occasion Smith wore a 1950s pink ball gown for a wedding in Monte Carlo on the terrace of the Hotel de Paris and ended up meeting Prince Albert.

Smith also inlcudes the story of Mrs Darnell's favourite dress – a peach slipper satin ball gown that she wore the night she met her husband.

While each dress has a lovely anecdote attached, there could have been a bit more attention paid to the editing of the passages.

Yes, they are poignant, and presumably they have been published pretty much exactly as they were written, but there surely was at least Spellcheck run over them; which means that the author could also have taken time to double check style and tone.
For instance ball gown is written as two words, but also as one – "ballgown", there are some passages in first person, and others in third person voice.

It would also have been easier for the reader if each passage had a few details to tie the whole book together; for example the age of the dress, the designer, the former owner's name etc, all laid out for ease of use.

The contents could also have been grouped in chapters, perhaps by age of garments, or occasions or even alphabetically based on designers or even by colours.

The reasoning behind this desire for some sort of catalogue, is a concern that as a useful resource for historians and fashionistas, or even sociologists, there is no index to assist in picking out the right dress.

While Smith seems not to have been interested in presenting Dreaming of Dior as anything other than an homage to her godmother and her collection, it seems a crying shame that such an opportunity to turn this fabulous, and priceless, collection's information into a more user-friendly tome, has been lost.

Still, Dreaming of Dior is a must buy for anyone even vaguely interested in fashion. It is a detailed, if haphazard, look at more than 200 years of women's clothes; and it shows that fashion is as much about the lives of the women who wear it as it is about the styles themselves.

Dreaming of Dior by Charlotte Smith is published by HarperCollins and is available from good book stores and online.

First published in The Straits Times blogs on October 19, 2009



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