Favorites Through The Ages

When it comes to fashion – what goes around, comes around. Everything from the past can be made new again and that's never been more evident than it is today. Eying that pair of flared jeans? Those baby blues were once a 1970s staple. Giving that beaded sheath dress the once-over? That style was a hit during the Roaring Twenties. It’s safe to say, vintage clothing is inspiring the creation of garments we wear today.

And when it comes to vintage clothing, nobody knows it better than Charlotte Smith. The owner of an 8000 piece collection of haute couture, The Darnell Collection, Charlotte knows the ins and out of fashion’s every decade. She sees vintage clothing as much more than a hipster fad, but rather a passion and truly unique way to travel through time. We sat down with Charlotte to talk about cotton and its importance in the history of fashion. We were delighted to hear that cotton has played a major role in clothing’s style and functionality. Over the next several months, Charlotte will be showing us cotton garments that were considered favorites through the ages. We’ll also be showcasing pieces inspired by these garments that you can shop today!

Read on to hear more about Charlotte and her passion for vintage clothing.

What is the Darnell Collection?

The Darnell Collection is a vast private collection of historic and vintage clothing and accessories dating as early as 1720 and as recent as 2014. It includes every aspect of a woman’s wardrobe and also includes a small number of men’s and children’s clothes. Almost every 20th century designer is represented in the collection including Madeline Vionnet, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood, Oscar de la Renta, and Geoffrey Beene, among many others.

How does cotton play a role in The Darnell Collection?

Almost every material ever used to make clothes and accessories is included in The Darnell Collection, including cotton.

Cotton is one of these natural fibers I make a point of collecting cotton. There are literally hundreds of cotton pieces, both couture and high-end RTW as well as historic pieces sewn by hand by dressmakers in the 19th century. They include day and evening dresses, wedding dresses, skirts, blouses, suits, shoes, gloves, handbags and hats.

The oldest garment in the collection is a white cotton organdy wedding dress worn by a Quaker bride when she married on Nantucket Island in 182o. The most recent garment is a cotton dress printed with an African tribal motif designed by an African fashion designer in 2014.

How has this collection shaped the way you look at vintage clothing?

There are a lot of vintage collections in the world, but none quite like The Darnell Collection. I like to think of my collection as one that celebrates the past to inspire the present.

It is a living and growing collection that records fashion and social history through fashion.

I look at vintage clothing from an inspirational point of view. I ask myself “Will this piece help tell the story of the history of fashion?” If it does I buy it! If I am offered something as a donation I always accept, and if it answers this same question, I am doubly pleased to incorporate the donation into the collection.

What is your favorite piece in the entire collection?

My favorite piece in the collection is a hand-sewn cotton day dress worn by a well to do Edwardian woman from the East Coast of America. It dates to 1915. It is made from cream lawn (a very fine cotton fabric) and is elaborately embroidered with Cornely work (a process whereby an underbraid is applied hand or machine stitched onto the fabric to create an elaborately braided, stitched pattern). A contrasting printed cotton fabric has been appliqued on top of the plain cotton lawn.

Personally, the dress symbolizes a time when many ladies were at the most leisurely and enjoyed morning and afternoon tea, lunches and then dinners dressed in their finery. The dress is also a wonderful example of hand sewing at a time when women read their women’s weekly magazines voraciously to see what latest fashions were being worn abroad.

And, this dress is an important example of the newly emerging independent woman of the 20th century. Gone were her restrictive corsets and waist cinchers worn during the 18th and 19th century and at the beginning of the 1900s. How carefree the wearer of this dress must have felt wearing such a light and floaty dress made of breathable cotton without any restrictive undergarments.

Who are your style icons?

Modern day: Michelle Obama. She has cleverly found a personal style that is fresh, elegant, easy to wear and one that celebrates American designers.

Mid 20th Century: Lucile Ball. Any woman who can make an apron look stylish wins my vote. She also wore some of the prettiest 50s and 60s dresses and always with the most perfectly coiffed hair.

Historic: Queen Alexandra of Denmark. Pure decadence and luxury are the two words that come to mind when I look at her wardrobe that I saw exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum several years ago. She was a fashion icon in her time and introduced the trend of wearing ornate chokers and high necklines (apparently to cover a scar on her neck). Of course, she had the money to buy the best, but we all know money doesn’t necessarily buy taste.

Which designer most exemplifies your personal style?

Ralph Lauren.

I love his ‘cowboy chic’ look mixed with ‘Ivy League’ for day. His suits are classic and tailored and work well when mixed with pieces of vintage from my collection.

His eveningwear is unfussy and streamlined which suits a slender and completely un-curvaceous frame. I look for clothes that create a long line that makes me look taller. I always find something that suits me. I think of Ralph Lauren’s clothes as informally formal and discreetly luxe.

What is your style motto?

Buy the best you can afford and buy clothes made of natural fibers.

What is one of the most memorable projects the collection has been a part of so far?

The most memorable project to date will have to be the most recent one when I styled and presented 42 catwalk parades at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Around one million people attend the Easter Show every year so it is a huge event.

I was invited by the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales to showcase four natural Australian fibers: Cotton, Wool, Mohair and Alpaca. I worked with 152 hair, beauty and fashion students and teachers from Sydney schools.

Each catwalk parade included vintage garments representing all four fibers plus new accessories such as throws, shawls and hats from Mohair and Alpaca exhibitors. My role was part stylist, dresser, speaker and educator (and psychologist too – having two minutes to decide which look each model would like to wear).

What is your favorite brand today?

Chanel. The company has been clever to remain privately owned and that has allowed it to remain true to its brand and continue producing iconic Chanel looks. A succession of head designers, most notably Karl Lagerfeld, regularly reviews the archives and reinterprets classic favorites which is skillfully update each year with new colors, textures and styles.

Chanel has remained a firm favorite with loyal customers, but with clever marketing has attracted a whole new audience – the young upwardly mobile woman who understands the importance of quality and also embraces clothes that empower her. Chanel is the most empowering brand I know. When you invest in a Chanel garment you are also buying an important 20th century fashion story.

What has this collection taught you about trends throughout history?

What is old is new again!

What do you hope people will discover from your collection?

I hope people will discover from my collection that fashion is more than just a dress or accessory. That fashion is far from irrelevant.

Fashion connects us to the past. It reflects social values and world events. Fashion is a sponge, soaking up the mood of the decade in which it is designed. My collection showcases two and a half centuries of social history.

I always say, “My collection is far more than a collection of dresses. It is a collection that records social history through fashion”.

What is your favorite decade in fashion?

The 1960s. I love the vibrancy, exuberance and experimentation you find in 60s clothing and accessories. It was a decade when the youth determined what was fashionable after decades of matronly women dictating style that lead to radically innovative trends.

Fashion in the Sixties mirrored social and political revolution. It was inspired by popular culture including music (rock and roll) to art (Pop and Op Art). Some of my most far out garments come from this decade.

About Charlotte Smith

In 2004, Charlotte inherited her American godmother’s collection of vintage and historic clothing she had amassed over a seventy-year period. Along with 3500 garments and accessories, she also received folders filled with personal letters and stories about the women who wore the garments. Charlotte quickly realized she had inherited more than a collection of fashion, but a collection recording fashion and social history. She knew what she had was truly unique.

Over the past eleven years the collection, now known as The Darnell Collection, has grown through bequests and auction purchases to over 8000 pieces. Every aspect of a woman’s wardrobe is included along with a small, but important element of men and children’s clothes. Many well-known designers from the 20th century are represented.