The Darnell Collection dresses up The Gold Coast City Gallery

A major exhibition ‘Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast’ is coming to the Gold Coast this summer. The exhibition celebrates some of the most iconic images from the past century of fashion as the publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Glamour opens up its photography archive to the public.

In addition, the ‘Coming into Fashion’ exhibition will include a selection of vintage couture fashion from The Darnell Collection – Australia’s largest private vintage clothing collection in Australia. For over 70 years, Doris Darnell, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, pursued a passion for fashion by collecting vintage clothes and accessories. Importantly, most of the items came with accompanying letters, photographs and stories which linked them to the original owners or donors and often to the occasions to which they were worn. In 2004 Australian-based author and designer Charlotte Smith inherited her godmother Doris’s collection. We chatted with her about the upcoming exhibition.

Do you have a favourite piece or pieces in the collection?

A dress by the British designer, Lucile Lady Duff Gordon, dating 1911, is a favourite. This one dress tells so many stories: about the newly emerging independent woman who wanted to be free of restrictive undergarments; about a woman who became a sought-after designer AND a respected business woman at a time when women were still expected to be accessories in a male-dominated world; about a dress that reflected the designer’s penchant for feminine dresses that fabulously sentimental names such as ‘A Frenzied Song of Amorous Things’ and ‘ The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied’. And, most intriguing of all, she (and her husband Sir Duff Gordon and their PA) survived the sinking of the Titanic.

This is a dress that tells us about fashion, social and world history! A dress is always more than just a dress!

Tell us how you feel about the wave of Fast Fashion sweeping the world.

I think it is tragic but sadly it reflects the 21st century and how fast everything has become. Not many people have the time to linger in shops to look at the quality of tailoring or the luxuriousness of a fabric.

Nowadays, a vast majority of people shop on line when the ‘look’ is all they can really tell from a photo on a computer screen. Buying something because of the ‘look’, rather than because of its quality and construction, has changed fashion consumerism.

Social media hasn’t helped either with young people and bloggers not wanting to be snapped in the same outfit twice. Fast fashion makes this possible because clothing is affordable. No longer is the adage ‘quality not quantity’ meaningful to a majority of shoppers. Educating people from a young age – primary school age – about the detrimental effects of fast fashion on society, the environment, the economy – will raise awareness, educate and change shopping habits for the next generation.

How do you go about choosing which pieces will travel to Coming Into Fashion and other exhibitions?

When Tracy Cooper-Lavery, Director of Gold Coast City Art Gallery, and I began our discussion around what to include in the tightly curated selection of garments, we knew our choices needed to wow and to engage visitors to the exhibition, yet not over power the photographs. We decided to concentrate on some of the well-known labelled couture and haute couture pieces in the collection. We looked at classic, well-known designers such as Valentino, at ‘house-hold’ names such as Prada, and at designers who are only beginning their fashion journey yet who have made a name for themselves in a highly competitive industry, such as Mary Katrantzou.

What are some of the particular challenges you face with regard to maintaining such a large body of materials?

The sheer volume of what I have can sometimes be overwhelming. Just finding the space to store all of my 600 hats in one area, 550 pairs of shoes, and 300 handbags is a challenge. Racks with dresses are easy to move around but take up a lot of space. Textile boxes filled with priceless dresses or ones that are too fragile to hang require two people to handle because they are so big.

My collection is stored in Grace Fine Art’s large climate controlled facility that I share with other collectors who store their priceless wine, sculptures and artworks. It’s near Sydney. The team at Grace bends over backwards to help me make my experience working with the collection as easy as possible.

Do you have a place in your heart for vintage pieces that aren’t high end, or designer brands, too?

Of course. An ‘ordinary’ piece that has a great story suddenly takes on a greater significance. I have a ‘prairie dress that is worn, soiled and patched. It looks like nothing yet when I read in my godmother’s notes about special pieces in the collection, that this was the only special dress this woman owned and what she did to keep it looking ‘special’, it breaks my heart. The hardships she endured riding across America in a Conestoga wagon and then coping with a new life in a dangerous and wild America at the end of the 19th century is staggering. Yet, she mended her only best dress with whatever was at hand, adding mismatching pieces of lace trim to the collar and cuffs, using odd scraps of fabric to patch her dress and continually turning up the fraying hem of her dress, makes this a very important dress in the collection. Again, its social history, fashion history and women’s empowerment by what they wore and why.

What would the requirements be of a garment to fit into a collection such as yours?

I am always honoured when people ask to gift something to the collection and I accept everything. The only thing I ask for is a story to go with their donation – anything about the garment itself, something about them or their family, trivia or an anecdote – anything that adds integrity and personality to the piece.

Gold Coast City Gallery will include a hand-picked selection of high end couture garments from the collection to accompany the ‘Coming into Fashion’ exhibition including designers such as Lucile, Vionnet, Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Pucci, Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes, Westwood, Versace, Dolce & Gabana and Jil Sander. ‘Coming into Fashion’ runs from 25 November to 18 February. Tickets to opening night on 24 November and a Talk Suite with the biggest names in Australian fashion are now on sale.

Photo by Graham Jepson

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