Thousands of high-fashion dresses a life-changing inheritance

Dior, Chanel, and de la Renta  -- just three of the legendary designers whose originals were found within 70 enormous wardrobe boxes of vintage dresses Charlotte Smith inherited from her godmother. And when Smith discovered the stories behind the 3,500 garments, she learned the historic significance – with links to a U.S. President, the coronation of a king, the sinking of the Titanic and other world events.

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The bequest changed her life,  Smith told FOX Business Network’s Jamie Colby, host of the prime-time series “Strange Inheritance”. The episode – “Overdressed”– airs Monday, Jan. 29 at 9:30 p.m.

Dating back to the1930s, Smith’s godmother, Doris Darnell, loved to make bold fashion statements, to the delight of her fellow Philadelphia socialites. Soon they started handing down to her their designer dresses or family heirlooms.

“People were just constantly giving her things,” Doris’ daughter Beth said. “She had a whole wardrobe of dresses and never bought one.”

Doris dutifully recorded the story behind each garment in meticulous notes, letters and photographs. These stories documented 150 years of fashion.

For instance, Doris owned the dress worn by Eleanor Chase when she married Charles Taft, son of the former President William H. Taft. Another dress was worn to the 1937 coronation of King George VI. There’s an original Dior worn by Ruth Meyer when her father, publisher of The Washington Post, hosted parties for the Washington, D.C. elite.

Darnell also had a dress by Lady Duff-Gordon, the leading British fashion designer of the late 19th century, who boarded the first lifeboat off the Titanic, along with her husband. So much for women and children first: The 40-man lifeboat was infamously nicknamed “The Millionaires” because it paddled away to safety with only 12 men and women aboard.

Not every story involves the rich and famous. One dress was purchased right after Pearl Harbor by a Boston woman engaged to a serviceman, who was shipping out in three days. At Filene’s Basement she found an ivory dress made of… parachute silk.  That proved a lucky omen for her wedding – as well as two of her friends who borrowed the dress for their wartime nuptials.  All three husbands made it home alive.

When Doris got older, she worried about what to do with all her dresses. Some of them – like a 1930s Chanel wedding dress – are valued at $20,000 to $50,000 or more. The entire collection could be worth millions of dollars, but selling it was out of the question for Doris.

“It’s a legacy for all the people who gave these things, and she promised not to sell it,” said her daughter Beth, who turned down the inheritance. “I loved her whole collection. But it was not something that I would have taken on.”

That’s when Doris Darnell reached out to Charlotte Smith who, growing up in Philadelphia, played dress up with her godmother.

“She never, ever let on that I was going to inherit this collection. It came out of the blue,” says Smith, who assumed control of the collection when Doris died in 2007.

“I remember just instantly thinking, what on earth am I going do with it?”

At the time Smith owned an antique store in Australia. She was free to sell any or all of the dresses and did test the market, letting one piece go for just under $6,000. She immediately regretted it.

“I was carrying on something that someone had begun and wished she could continue. She took it to a certain level and always anticipated it going further.”

Once Smith resolved to keep the collection intact, a new world opened up to her.

She used the collection to stage modeling shows and exhibits, and soon was lecturing at museums and colleges around the world. In the decade since her strange inheritance, she’s become recognized as a fashion history expert and has authored two books on the subject.

“The collection is at a place that Doris always envisaged it to be,” Smith said. “I think the collection has given me incredible confidence. It’s empowered me. It’s given me something that I can learn and grow with. Doris changed my life.”