Interview Series “On Beauty” Charlotte Smith
Bridget’s Note: Sometimes a simple gesture can change your life. When I offered to drive Charlotte Smith home to the Blue Mountains after an event in Sydney we had both been attending, I was granted the pleasure of spending 2 hours alone in her company. As Charlotte told me all about her extraordinary life and her phenomenal fashion collection, I was blown away. How did I not know about this incredible woman who lived only 15 minutes from me? Here is just a glimpse of her story.
For the second in our special interview series “On Beauty” we’re talking to Charlotte Smith, custodian of one of the world’s largest fashion collections, The Charlotte Smith Fashion Collection. This historic collection was bequeathed to her by her American Godmother, Doris Darnell, and came complete with accompanying letters, photographs and stories that linked the pieces to the original owners and the occasions to which they were worn.
Now containing some 9000 pieces, Charlotte exhibits this fascinating collection around the world, enthralling her audience and proving that fashion is so much more than fabric.
Q. You have an AMAZING fashion collection (even that feels like an understatement!). Do you have any favourites or is it way too tough to choose?
Rather than having favourite garments, which is too difficult to choose from, I have two decades I love.
I find 1900 – 1910 fascinating. It was at the turn of the 20th century we witnessed the immergence of the Modern Woman. This was a time of feminists and suffragettes, women who were changing the way society regarded women.
With women’s changing roles, what they wore was changing too. Gone were the corsets and restrictive undergarments and in came practical clothing that allowed women a new freedom. I have many garments and accessories from this period. I am in awe of the women who wore these clothes and thank them for their determination in changing society’s perception of women and how women thought about themselves.
I also love the 1970s when women travelled, ran companies, were mothers and wives, were pioneers and inventors, could dress as hippies, as executives in pantsuits, dress like movie stars, or wear pastel coloured polyester jumpsuits and long hostess gowns. Fashion in the Seventies was about convenience as much as style. There was so much choice! I wear a lot of Seventies dresses. They are long, polyester, colourful and very individual.
Q. This collection has allowed you to travel the world, meet a broad spectrum of people and educate others on the history of fashion. What have been some of the highlights?
Inheriting a vast collection of fashion from my American godmother totally changed my life. As you point out, it has opened doors to exciting opportunities – from writing books to appearing on television. It has led to introductions to fascinating people, has allowed me to visit remote towns in Australia as well as exotic countries around the world, and it has motivated me to step out of my comfort zone and learn as much as I can about the culture of fashion.
Three highlights spring to mind.
The first was an afternoon tea and timeline-of-fashion parade I held at my daughter’s school in the Blue Mountains several years ago. We invited the local community, including residents of local retirement villages and nursing homes. It was wonderful to see so many twinkling eyes as many of the older guests’ regaled us with their stories. I am passionate about bringing together people of all ages and firmly believe storytelling is the way to unite people and cultures.
A second highlight was in Las Vegas when I curated and presented a 50 year timeline of fashion history for American computer software company, Gerber Technology, at Caesars Palace. I had 5 local models wear garments from the Collection dating from 1940 to 1980.
Gerber organised a fashion design competition with American fashion schools (who use their software) and the winning student garments were paraded on stage alongside the originals from my Collection. I co-hosted this with Tim Gunn, presenter of TV hit, Project Runway. It was an incredible feeling being in Vegas at one of the most iconic hotels on the Strip and talking about how fashion’s past creates the present and inspires the future.
And the most recent highlight was the 1 month cruise I just did as an Enrichment Speaker on Viking Sun’s world tour. I embarked in Sydney and cruised the south coast of Australia before an 8 day crossing of the Indian Ocean to the Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique and Durban, South Africa where I flew home.
Q. What are your upcoming plans for the collection?
In the immediate future, I plan to de-accession half of the Collection and curate a more focused look at the culture of fashion by concentrating on ‘Multiculturalism in Fashion’ as a theme and reason to collect.
After my Viking Ocean Cruise experience, I want to expand on my role as a ‘globetrotting fashion anthropologist’. I love the idea of travelling, telling fashion’s history as an Enrichment Speaker and showcasing the museum-quality pieces from my Collection. It is an extraordinary resource.
Q. You have a daughter who has recently completed high school. Is she interested in fashion? What does she teach you about the way the youth of today approach fashion?
My daughter loves fashion and has cultivated a very individual look. Her look is all about layers, made up of clothing made from natural fibres in soft greys/browns/beige and blue. It’s a classic look combining Ralph Lauren, Audrey Hepburn, and English country life. Each year, she buys a few expensive wardrobe staples and builds her outfits around these. So for her, it’s quality over quantity.
Seeing what my daughter and her friend’s wear, I realise there are no uniform looks anymore, which means everybody has the opportunity to create something bespoke, which tells their personal story.
Q. Fashion and beauty have close ties. Having spent many years working in the fashion industry, what does beauty mean to you?
I believe beauty comes from within. A woman who radiates youthfulness (spiritually and mentally), compassion, a woman who is vivacious, interested in and aware of everything around her, no matter what age, is going to be far more alluring than a woman who might be conventionally beautiful, but boring to be around.
I have met many women who are so vivacious that I am instantly bowled over by them. Often they are not conventionally beautiful.
I remember watching an English television series about women and beauty. Apparently, the Greeks came up with a mathematical equation for a classically beautifully woman based on ration – where the eyes, nose, mouth were placed and their proportions to the size of the face. An expert, interviewed on the show, used this ancient formula to pronounce that the English actress Elizabeth Hurley had the perfectly proportioned face and was a true classic beauty.
If you are not Elizabeth Hurley (or Elizabeth Taylor, who in her heyday was the most beautiful woman on earth, in my opinion) beauty reflects your state of mind. If you are feeling great about yourself then you feel beautiful.
Q. You’ve begun embracing natural and organic beauty in your skincare regime. What made you want to transition to this type of skincare?
To be honest, the transition to natural and organic beauty products was motivated by cost.
When I lived in America and England, I used La Prairie products. My skin loved them, but trying to continue using exclusive products, coming from overseas, became difficult to source and prohibitively expensive.
So I started experimenting.
Six years ago, I was on the road travelling a lot around Australia and whenever I saw locally made skincare products for sale in a city in which I was working, I would buy them to sample. At this time, natural and organic skincare was just emerging as mainstream, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised I wanted to use as many natural ingredients on my skin as I could.
My aim was to find something that gave me the same results, if not better, as La Prairie did for my skin. I tried two different Australian skincare brands before I came across Clémence Organics and I am incredibly happy with the results. Clémence products are superb. And to top it all off, I couldn’t get more sustainable than the 15km distance from Clémence’s office to my home.
Q. What are some of your favourite beauty products and why?
Clarins Beauty Flash. I have used this for years, actually since it first came on the market in Paris in the late 1970s where I was living and studying as part of my university year abroad. What’s interesting is that Clarins was the first beauty brand to be plant based and I remember the slightly puzzled, but intrigued interest around this concept at the time.
Estee Lauder’s red lipstick ‘Envy Boldface’ #332. I feel as if I am not properly dressed if I am not wearing my red lipstick when I go out in public. When it’s a special event, applying it is the final stage in getting dressed to go out. Sometimes, getting ready is the best part of the whole evening.
Foot pumice stone. I use this on my feet every evening in the shower. It’s like having a mini pedicure every day and keeps my feet feeling soft and looking good at no cost.
Clémence Organics Repair Face Serum. I love the sensation of the serum soaking into my skin after I exfoliate. There is nothing nicer than to touch soft skin. I have also noticed that my eyelashes have grown much longer since using the serum!!
Q. Top beauty tip?
For the past 30 years, after every bath or shower, I have always slathered myself with rich, moisturising body lotion. I feel it has paid off because my skin is (still) soft and supple. I have always feared the day I wake up to dry, wrinkly skin. I don’t think it hurts to begin a body lotion routine from an early age.