Kate’s review

Title: One Enchanted Evening
Author: Charlotte Smith

In 2004, Charlotte Smith inherited more than 3,000 vintage couture gowns from her Quaker godmother, Doris Darnell. She had spent a lifetime gathering her collection, which spanned 250 years of fashion. Every single piece had been given to her, by friends who knew of her passion and by strangers who wanted their old and precious clothes to be properly cared for.

Some of the pieces are worth a small fortune. All of them were once treasured by their owners. It seems like every woman’s dream come true, but the Darnell Collection is also a big responsibility. Many need to be kept in climate controlled conditions, and kept free of dust, mould and insects.

Doris Darnell also bequeathed her god-daughter her notebooks, which detailed the history of each item. She described these histories as: “fascinating stories, sometimes full of joy, other times grief, sometimes bitterness, other times heartache.”

As Charlotte Smith writes in her introduction, these stories are “a priceless recording off social history through fashion … the storytelling is what brings each piece to life.”

The book is a simple, elegant creation. Charlotte Smith chose 250 of her favourite outfits, and then wrote a brief vignette that brings its story to life. Each outfit is gorgeously illustrated by Grant Cowan.

The first dress is Doris Darnell’s own personal favourite, a shamrock-green evening gown with a matching floor-length cape. Charlotte matches this with her own memories of her godmother, who would wear a black velvet Victorian cloak to go grocery shopping (I must say, I like her style!)

On another page, we hear the story of an elderly fashion designer who used the remnants of her glamorous designs to create ball-gowns for her granddaughter’s dolls.

A few pages later, the story of a loving father who commissioned his daughter a spectacular evening coat for her 21st birthday, asking for it to be embroidered with all her favourite flowers.

Another daughter is flown to Rome every year to choose a Valentino dress for her birthday.

Not all the outfits are high-end glamour. One outfit was created by a young woman at the end of the Second World war, when clothes rationing meant many women had not seen a new dress for years. Deborah was going on a date with a handsome young soldier called Thomas, but had nothing but her old suit to wear. So she dug into her grandmother’s sewing box, and created a new beaded collar and flower pin from scraps of fabric and a few glass beads.

This is a book to be browsed through at your leisure, enjoying rare glimpses into the lives of women from the past. As Charlotte Smith writes: “a dress can become a thread that forever links us to a particular enchanted evening.”