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Doris Duke was a stranger to me.
I say, “was,” because after you sort through someone’s clothing (including underwear), you get to know them fairly well.
The main objective of my internship at Rough Point over the summer and fall was to accession (or catalogue) a recent collection of her clothes that were shipped from her former Shangri-La property in Hawaii to the museum staff at NRF.
Some things I learned about Doris while doing this were that she loved belts, enjoyed a comfy caftan, and had a penchant for bright colors and modern fashions. A portrait of her, printed to a life-size scale, watched over me diligently in my temporary office as I browsed her clothing collection, which was busting out of the boxes from Hawai’i. The vast swath of styles stretched over decades from the 1930s to the 1980s, and, of course, I had some personal favorites along the way.
I enjoyed seeing the bright prints and short skirts of the 1960s and 1970s, and cooed over the delicate beadwork on bias-cut gowns. However, there was, and still is, an academic barrier that kept me from loving them. As a graduate student who is versed in fashion history, each of these garments turned into a mini-study. These things, to me, were relics to be treated with the utmost delicacy and care. A majority of the clothing I referred to as objects, divided from me by time and space. These objects were cool, but they were not applicable to my life.
What was applicable, and the clothes that I loved, were tourist t-shirts from the mid-to-late 80s. I never grew up wearing crinolines or mod suits, nor did I ever see anyone wearing any in my day-to-day life. But having been born in the late 90s, I did recognize t-shirts.
Doris had t-shirts from trips she took to Hawai’i, Montana, and more– little “touristy” things that might even be considered cheap looking to some people. These shirts made Doris feel real to me, and not just some larger than life figure that watched me from a poster. These are things that she would have acquired late in her life, and very much reminded me of my own grandmothers. It was a very bittersweet moment, looking over these casual clothes and being reminded that Doris was once my grandmothers’ age. The experience left me feeling melancholy, but with a new affinity for an aging woman who had a life well-lived, and probably grew to enjoy the comfort of a t-shirt.
I once again think of my own grandmothers and the stories they tell about their lives. The decades scarcely understood by myself, having never lived them, but still sharing an intimate connection through clothing. They love a good t-shirt, I love a good t-shirt, and so did Doris.
By Paige Bailey
Paige Bailey was the curatorial graduate intern for 2021 summer and fall. Paige is in her second year of the Master of Science degree in Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design at the University of Rhode Island.