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Despite being a native of Rhode Island, Doris Duke was a stranger to me prior to my summer internship in collections at Rough Point. Over the weeks, I made Duke’s acquaintance in the most personal of ways: through an examination of her clothing. Each day, I climbed three flights of stairs to what had been the servants’ quarters to my solitary workroom. There I opened box after box of a donation of her personal wardrobe from Shangri La, Duke’s Hawaiian estate. I carefully documented the contents by examining each object, assessing its potential provenance and condition, and then repacking it. With the sense of time travel that objects of the past imbue, I became a steward of Doris Duke’s personal belongings, like the servants who had occupied this space before.
I traveled through time and space with Doris, via her clothing, in a distinctly non-linear fashion; from the 1960s in Mumbai, possibly back to the 1930s in North Africa, and then forward again to the late 1970s in New York City. Clothing, especially for the fashion-conscious like Doris, is an unmistakable expression of self-identity. Each garment and accessory is chosen purposefully, to reveal or to conceal the body, to impress others, or to express support for a cause. Some items were souvenirs from her far-flung travels, a way to commemorate a place and time, while others, clearly handmade and without labels, were probably commissioned from a local seamstress. The haute couture and designer pieces clue one in to the social circles Doris might have circulated in, and when she may have been abroad on a shopping trip. Duplicates of one item, bought in different colorways, can indicate what colors she preferred based on which garment has the most evidence of wear.
Few other museums, if any, are fortunate enough to have most of a singular person’s wardrobe, and therefore to be able to interpret their lives in this way. The Western European concept of the fashion exhibit, especially of contemporary clothing, developed in the late 20th century. People did not purchase their clothes with the anticipation that these garments, sometimes including their undergarments, would eventually be on display in a museum, and used to document and interpret the history of their lives.
Two months is a short time to try to get to know someone – even though I had over 730 “opportunities” (the number of objects I documented) to do so. I was left with many questions– I will elaborate on just one here. Duke’s sense of style seems to have flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequently so do the number of pieces from that period in the collection, whereas the dearth of midcentury garments compounds the mystery of her life at that time. A rare, haute couture, green velvet Dior coatdress with leopard cuffs from 1947 was one exception. The design of this piece clearly fits with Duke’s style markers of dazzling jewel-tone colors, metallic trimmings, and foreign inspiration (according to the designer history, it was supposedly inspired by Russia).
In contrast, some of her other pieces from the post-war, New Look-era are a filmy, off-white, strapless bouffant gown and a beige hostess gown (a robe-like garment sufficiently elegant enough for entertaining guests) in a floral-patterned ikat taffeta. These are both beautiful, but not visually striking. The wearer could easily fade into the background. Why might Doris, typically a bold dresser, have chosen to own and wear them?
The obvious question, for today’s readers, however, is “what to wear in lockdown?” Here, Duke’s answer is easy to imagine…the house dress is the perfect balance of comfort and fashion when one must hide away from the world.
By Alyssa C. Opishinski
Summer 2020 Collections Intern and URI graduate student studying Fashion History and Textile Science in the Dept. of Textiles, Merchandising, and Design. More about Alyssa’s summer internship can be found on Instagram: @thesartorialsleuth and #dukesdailypattern