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More than two centuries of fashion in ‘Dreaming of Dior’

A new book from the curator of Australia’s Fashion and Textile Gallery showcases a remarkable collection of historic clothing items — and the stories behind them.

April 18, 2010|By Whitney Friedlander, Los Angeles Times
  • "Dreaming of Dior" by Charlotte Smith and illustrated by Grant Cowan.
"Dreaming of Dior" by Charlotte Smith and illustrated by Grant… (Simon & Schuster )

It doesn't matter how much it cost or which designer was involved — if you can't remember how an article of clothing makes you feel when you're wearing it, then it doesn't matter if it's Louis Vuitton or Forever 21.

That philosophy is at the heart of a new book by Charlotte Smith titled "Dreaming of Dior: Every Dress Tells a Story."

Six years ago, Smith, curator of the Fashion and Textile Gallery in Sydney, Australia, received the ultimate gift: A collection of more than 3,000 pieces of women's clothing dating from 1790 to 1995 complete with notes on the history of the items and the women who loved them. The collection, much of it donated, had been assembled over the course of a lifetime by Smith's American godmother, Doris Darnell, who, after she retired from her job as personnel director of the American Friends Service Committee, started a second career of sorts, staging fashion shows on cruise ships and at museums and college halls, donating her speaking fees to charity.

Smith, working with fashion illustrator Grant Cowan to capture poses that are appropriate to a garment's time period, has chronicled her godmother's collection in a picture book for grown-up girls.

Although the real-life articles of clothing are on display in her gallery, Smith, 49, says she opted for drawings in the book "because the stories behind the dresses are as much of a feature as the dresses themselves … [and] we felt a beautiful, romantic, evocative illustration would allow the reader to interpret the story personally."

While the names of the women wearing the dresses might not be recognizable, the 142 anecdotes in the book offer a glimpse into a history of various styles and customs that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. And despite the Dior reference in the title, not every item mentioned has a designer label — or at least Smith doesn't name-check them all.

Choice tidbits include the story of the fiery Mrs. Emily Ashley, who was arrested and fined $5 in 1880s Connecticut for not wearing a corset. Amused but fearful she might be arrested again — this time for striking a court official with her parasol — her husband, Gilbert, paid the fine.

Then there's the stunning 1911 Lucile wedding gown that also serves as a reminder that while Lucile herself (a.k.a. Lady Duff Gordon) might not have gone down with the Titanic, her business sank when the public learned that the small number of survivors onboard her lifeboat didn't go back for others.

"When I was going through these letters and reliving some of the stories I really was transported back to a time of genteelness, appreciation, good manners, lady-like behavior (mostly!) and plain old fashioned nostalgia," Smith writes in an e-mail. "I wanted other people to have this same experience."

Smith was born in Hong Kong and raised outside Philadelphia As an adult she lived in London, Paris and New York, frequently working for art dealers, before settling in Australia, where she ran an antique shop for a time.

Smith has had many occasions to make an entrance, and the book includes several of these statement outfits, including a tiny strapless white dress with pink polka dots that she wore when she met Prince Albert while attending a wedding in Monaco, as well as a sleek, skin-tight Georges Rech mini she wore to the Moulin Rouge in the 1980s when a dancer pulled her onstage to can-can. (The dance was interrupted after Smith's eight-strand pearl choker broke and chorus girls scattered to catch the — fake — pearls. She didn't have the heart to tell the pearl-gatherers that their efforts were in vain.)

"I know I am the luckiest woman to have thousands of dresses, handbags, hats, jewels, gloves, furs … and shoes to choose from," Smith says. "Inheriting the collection has changed my life."

whitney.friedlander@latimes.com

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