The Darnell Collection

It started with a dress…


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In 1937, during the dark days of the Great Depression, a young Quaker woman called Doris Darnell bought a beautiful pink slipper satin silk dress from a shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She wore it to a ball, escorted by an admirer whom she married one year later and lived with happily for the next 60 years.

The Darnell Collection


Recording social history through fashion

For Doris, this treasured dress became a link with the past and every time she looked at the dress it brought back memories of a wonderful moment in her life. This one dress triggered a life-long passion to collect special occasion gowns and accessories along with their stories of when and to what they were worn.

More than 60 years later, in 2004, Doris bequeathed me her collection of fashion. More than 3500 garments and accessories arrived from Philadelphia to the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia. I was suddenly the owner of outerwear and underwear, furs, bathing suits, shoes, hats and handbags and all types of dresses imaginable - wedding dresses, cocktail dresses, elegant day dresses, debutante and coronation dresses and sumptuous ballgowns! Every aspect of a well-dressed woman's wardrobe, as early as 1740, was now in my possession along with a selection of fine men's garments and pretty children's clothes.

And, best of all, almost every one of the garments came with a documented, personal story. This is what makes The Darnell Collection unique. It is a collection that records social history through fashion.

During the past nine years the collection has grown to include more than 8000 items and includes almost every major 20th Century fashion designer.


The timeless elegance of wool

The Darnell Collection

In my role as custodian of Australia's largest collection of fashion I have added my personal stamp. Because I find the diversity of fashion styles from the 1960s - an era of enormous social change that fuelled the creative passion of hip designers like Andres Courreges and Mary Quant exciting - I have added hundreds of pieces from this revolutionary decade. I also find the vibrancy of colour and pattern in the 70s an important fashion period to include, as this was a decade that saw designers like YSL and Halston dress the sophisticated women of the world. Current season clothes, straight from the runway, are also significant to the collection. I feel it is important to keep the collection up to date with the latest looks, fabrics and inspirations from both couture houses and emerging designers.

But most significantly, I have added (and continue to do so) a significant wool element to the collection. When Doris' bequest first arrived in Australia I was surprised to see so many garments from the Victorian era whose colours were still as vibrant and intense as they were when made 150 years earlier. I soon realised the quality of wool made it perfect for dyeing. I also noticed how extraordinarily diverse the weaves and textures of these vintage wool garments were. I was intrigued that one fibre could be adapted to suit so many looks and styles let alone be used for so many types of garments.

Wool wasn't just used for men's suits. I had elegant day and evening dresses, wedding dresses, skirts, vests, shawls, coats, hats, handbags, gloves and even shoes from the past two centuries. They were all made from wool and all timeless in their appeal.


Vintage drives innovation

The Darnell Collection

Vintage clothing has become an important source of inspiration for designers worldwide. Stimulus can come from shapes and silhouettes, from materials (plain, printed, woven, knitted or spun), from diverse kinds of garments as well as how they were constructed. The way diverse fabrics were combined and how seemingly clashing colours were used together is also inspirational. Even the way beads and embroidery were applied and whether fabric was draped or tailored to reflect iconic fashion moments in each decade or century continues to inspire dressmakers today - a creative designer can subtly reference a vintage fashion moment or clearly reinterpret it.

Vintage drives innovation and The Woolmark Company embraces innovation. By partnering with The Darnell Collection, The Woolmark Company supports the industry by allowing this unique and valuable fashion design resource to be accessible as an inspirational tool to anyone interested in fashion, textiles, interiors, craft and manufacturing.

As Ambassador-at-large for Vintage at The Woolmark Company I will be writing a monthly column showcasing intriguing elements of the collection. Everything from iconic fashion styles and moments, to well-known and lesser-known designers, from in-depth studies of weaves and knits, to quirky stories about the men and women who wore the clothes, will be included in my monthly topics - all in the name of wool, the finest fibre in the world.


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