A Passion For Fashion: The Darnell Collection

Australian Fashion Council

A glimpse into the incredible cotton garments of The Darnell Collection, presented by Cotton Australia.

The Darnell Collection
The Darnell Collection is considered the largest private vintage clothing collection in Australia. The collection holds a mirror to our time, and tells the story women's wardrobe since 1720 to present day. It includes 8000 pieces from 32 different countries. Many internationally recognised 20th century designers are represented including Lucile, Vionnet, Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Pucci, Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes, Westwood, Versace, Dolce & Gabana and Jil Sander.

Doris Darnell

For over 70 years, Doris Darnell, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, pursued a passion for fashion by collecting vintage clothes and accessories. For Doris, the social history behind the items was as important as the items themselves and preserving them and their stories for future generations became an important part of her passion. The Darnell Collection grew out of donations and gifts from her family's wide circle of friends and acquaintances around the world. Importantly, most of the items came with accompanying letters, photographs and stories which linked them to the original owners or donors and often to the occasions to which they were worn.


Every aspect of a woman's wardrobe since 1720 to present day is included: outerwear, underwear, nightwear, day and evening dresses, wedding dresses, sportswear, shoes, hats, handbags, gloves, jewellery, lace, buttons, fans, feathers, textiles, wire hoop crinolines and bustles. Men's and children's clothing is also represented as is a large reference library of books, journals and museum exhibition catalogues.

In 2007, the collection was enhanced by a bequest of 600 items from the 19th and 20th century from the late Deborah McKeown of Adelaide and more recently, Australian Wool Innovations (AWI) donated 75 stunning contemporary Australian designer wool garments. Just this year, a Sydney collector of couture and haute couture has donated over 25 gowns including a Balenciaga LBD from 1947; an evening gown by Balmain (Ivoire label), 1979; Jacqueline de Ribes, 1970s; a stunning Haute Couture gown by Courreges dating to 1983; and more recent couture by Chanel, Mary Katranzou, Rodarte and Givenchy, among many others.

Custodian of the Darnell Collection

Charlotte Smith inherited her godmother Doris's collection in 2004. For the past 11 years Charlotte has researched (and is currently cataloguing) the collection. Aside from the importance of construction, design and the diversity of fabrics, social history and the history of fashion are important aspects of the collection on which Charlotte focuses when lecturing or exhibiting the collection.

As custodian of the Darnell Collection, Charlotte recognises the importance of its role in fashion history education and its role as a design resource. Charlotte regards her collection as a collection recording social history through fashion.


The collection's mission is to preserve, develop and enhance the collection's ability to educate, interpret and inspire existing and new audiences for the better understanding and appreciation of the art of fashion.

Discover the collection
Continue through to see 15 Australian designed cotton garments and their stories, selected from The Darnell Collection. View the rest of the impressive collection through the AFC page or search by a keyword. Draw from cotton's rich fashion history and be inspired to create in cotton today.

Linda Jackson Silk Screen Kimono

This short kimono-style is made from lightweight cotton poplin. The motif has been hand silk-screened using a paper stencil. For more than 40 years of practice, Linda Jackson played a fundamental role in the development of a distinctly Australian approach to fashion design. Working as an artist outside the conventional fashion marketplace, she devised unique forms of clothing that evolved beyond the sphere of seasonal trends; defying the limits of Western fashion by drawing on an eclectic mix of influences from India, Africa, Asia and Australia. Jackson initially worked with vintage prints. She travelled extensively around Australia, living and working with indigenous communities. This is where she learnt traditional textile techniques and brought the colours and patterns of the Australian flora and fauna into her work. She then moved onto screenprinting her own material. Once she did that, she simplified her patterns to the point that all she did was cut a hole for the head. This way she didn’t loose much of the pattern. These became her signature kimono style garments. She also worked with applique, hand painting and patchwork. Her pieces have a sense of playfulness to them.

Mona Crawford Long Dress

This long evening dress is made of sheer silk organza and machine embroidered with cotton satin thread in an Australian Flannel Flower pattern. It is fully lined in a yellow viscose fabric. The cotton embroidery is 2 dimensional because of the density of the cotton threads. The dress is sleeveless with a back plastic zipper and has a wide sailor style collar.. The yellow velvet ribbon at the waistband and on the hem is not original. Mona Crawford was a fashion designer and stylist, born in Sydney in 1909 and died in 1998. She worked for a number of prominent Australian fashion retailors, including Mark Foys and Myer, making frequent buying trips to the United States. In later years Mona ran her own fashion agency, Mona Crawford International, in Sydney. Mona Crawford designed the dress for the first Australian winner of Miss International. Tania Verstak wore a yellow dress embroidered with Australian native flowers with each flower representing a state. This was the first time an Australian contestant wore an outfit that symbolised Australia and identified her to her country through fashion. In the past, beauty contestants had worn glamour clothes.

David Jones White Corduroy Long Dress

This summer long dress is made of pique cotton cord fabric. The Irish crocheted flower embroidery is done with a mix of cotton threads and silk threads as well as glass beads and rhinestones. The flowers are appliquéd onto the dress. Thin spaghetti straps add a feminine touch as well as the wide fold-over panel across the bodice both front and back. A plastic zipper runs down the back of the dress. The bodice is fitted and the pleats at the waistband create a full skirt effect. The dress is fully lined with a bleached cotton muslin fabric.

Anne Frances Floral Pinafore Dress With Ruffles

This summer pinafore style dress is made of printed cotton batiste.

Dandre Gowns Pink Gingham Dress

This dress is made from a plain weave, cotton gingham head cloth. The asymmetrical effect of the lightweight, but eye catching gingham fabric gives the skirt optical density and fullness. The dress is lined with a paper-like lining (Vilene) for extra stiffness and strength. The skirt is unlined and a full, netted petticoat would have been worn underneath. It had a matching bolero jacket. The dress is in the New Look inspired by Christian Dior when he launched La Corolle in 1947. The bodice is fitted by pleats and lining (without requiring metal or plastic stays) to create a nipped in waist effect. Spaghetti straps complete the 50s look. Rik Rak braid was popular in the 50s and gives the dress a country charm. Jennifer Johnston, of Armidale, NSW, wore this dress in the 1950s. She called it her ‘first love’ dress and recalled the times when she wore it. The dress was donated to the collection in 2008.

Lulu Red Jumpsuit

This jumpsuit is made from a poly cotton blend pinstripe fabric. Polyester and cotton are crucial materials in the fabric and garment-making industries because each has a number of useful characteristics. Poly-cotton blends are created by employing industrial weavers and looms to combine the two fibers; blend ratios typically range from 65 percent cotton and 35 percent polyester to a 50-50 mix. Rosie the Riveter famously donned a jumpsuit while urging women to work in factories during World War II. From there, jumpsuits appeared on the runway in the 1960s (with looks from designers like Yves Saint-Laurent and Norma Kamali), and then enjoyed a well-received return in the 1980s.

Nicki McClintock Flower Overcoat

This summer coat is made from a printed lightweight cotton shirting fabric. Designer, Nicki McClintock has created a reputation for beautifully feminine garments. A passion for designing vintage inspired pieces that transcend the seasons. Once you have a piece from her collection, it will last beyond the trends. Inspiration comes from the fabrics. Anything unique and colourful, with mismatched prints and designs, are her iconic looks. Her business was founded in 1997.

Unlabelled Australian Print Icon Trousers

This pair of trousers is made from a plain weave cotton furnishing fabric - most probably originally a tablecloth with iconic Australian name brands.

Merivale Peasant Dress

The House of Merivale was to Australia what Biba and Ossie Clark was to the UK: stylish and sophisticated clothing, now highly collectable. This from The Powerhouse’s site:
Established by John and Merivale Hemmes, the landmark House of Merivale and clothing designed by Merivale revolutionised the Australian fashion scene. John and Merivale Hemmes were mavericks in Australian fashion. Modelled on London’s famous concept boutiques and catering to 18-25 year olds, the House of Merivale was the first specialty fashion boutique in Australia. The House of Merivale was not just a shop; it was a phenomenon that significantly influenced a generation of young Australian’s attitude to shopping and the fashion experience. The House of Merivale was the place to go to for the latest trends in music, fashion and make-up and was the first store in Australia to sell the mini. The popularity of the boutique was such that teenagers would be lined up outside the door.

John Hilton Long Dress

This poly/cotton blend terry towel long dress/hostess gown combines the interest in blended fabrics and eye-popping patterns popular in the 60s. Gyula Heitler, born in Bratislava in 1912, learnt from a young age how to buy and sell in his parents’ general store. Arriving from Europe in 1947, Gyula changed his name to John J Hilton and worked for his sponsor Alexander ‘Gigi’ Schwarz at Olympia Fashions, a dress shop in Pitt Street. Then, together with his elder brother Emil, he started a business manufacturing ladies knitwear. Adopting the trading name, John J Hilton, they looked around for Australian creative-fashion opportunities and decided to focus on women in their mid-twenties and older, offering them elegant and durable dresses at a fair price. The business grew to 100 employees, with showrooms around Australia and representatives in Paris, New York and London.
John J Hilton was one of the first to export Australian fashion to Japan, as well as to Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada and United States. A pioneer in the use of wool in women’s dresses, John J Hilton was the recipient of fashion awards, including the Australian Wool Award. The resulting goodwill attached to the John J Hilton brand name meant that garments were still available for purchase well into the 1990s.

Stuart Membery Bomber Jacket

This bomber jacket is made from cotton plaid check, cotton denim, cotton ribbed cuff and hem with a printed cotton flannel lining (and a synthetic fleece collar).

The Real McCoy Denim Skirt

This skirt is made from a medium weight chambray/oxford cloth woven cotton fabric.

Katie Pye Sack Dress

This sack dress is made from cotton corduroy and embroidered with cotton and rayon yarn. Katie Pye is the altruistic originator of indigenous Australian style. Her label represents body architecture: a freedom of movement and expression.

George Skirt & Vest Ensemble with Cross-Stitch Embroidery

This skirt and vest ensemble is made of a dyed, lightweight, plain weave cotton. The machine done cross-stitch embroidery is created by cotton thread.

Credits: Story

With thanks to The Darnell Collection and Cotton Australia for images and text.

Photography by Brigitte Grant Photography

Created by Bradley Waters at Australian Fashion Chamber.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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