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Off the rails

Jenny Wilhide takes a nostalgic trip into her mother’s closet

21 June 2006

1:07 PM

21 June 2006

1:07 PM

In his will, Napoleon bequeathed his embroidered mantles, vests and small-clothes (did he mean his britches or his underwear, I wonder?) to his three favourite brothers, and his silver-gilt bidet to his son. Depending on your nationality, it either seems amusingly thrifty or else awfully sad that the exiled emperor was distributing bidets and smalls in his closing days on St Helena. But perhaps he was just very much ahead of his time. Nowadays, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have a thriving business auctioning everything from Katharine Hepburn’s telephone to a piece of paper on which Marilyn Monroe pencilled ‘He does not love me’.

Clothes worn by the famous hold a particular fascination. Often as not they’re superbly designed and made, highly sought after by museums and collectors around the world and respected as something close to works of art. Add to the mix the frisson which occurs when the icon of our popular imagination meets the actual living breathing person (is that a sweat stain in the dress that Marilyn wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’? Is that a cigar burn on Churchill’s nightshirt?) and you have something close to a frenzy in the auction room. Marilyn’s estate sale topped $13.4 million at Christie’s New York in 1999, $1 million for that Jean Louis sheath dress alone.

On 26 June, my mother Leslie Caron is auctioning her collection of haute couture. After keeping them carefully for years, she is tired of closets full of things she doesn’t wear any more, even though most of them still fit her. I remember her wearing many of them, and seeing them again is a heady evocation of an amazing childhood — just like the scent of forgotten perfume, or the smell of hot grass under sprinklers on the lawns of Beverly Hills.

The Yves Saint Laurent gown she wore to present Mike Nichols with the Oscar for best director for The Graduate in 1968 is one I particularly love, especially as the film is a great classic. The black Givenchy suit made as her costume for the play Orvet, written and directed by Jean Renoir in Paris in 1955, is a piece of stage history, and a reminder of someone my mother loved like a surrogate father. Many delicious family Sundays were spent at Jean and Dido Renoir’s house in Beverly Hills. Jean regaled us with fascinating stories, funny anecdotes of his father (Pierre August) out painting bathers with Cézanne, and my brother and I were enveloped in a very French affection. The satin gown my mother wore to the premiere of Valentino starring Rudolf Nureyev (she played Alla Nazimova in Ken Russell’s film) is also a favourite. Ballet was my mother’s first love, and she’s proud to be the only partner to have danced with Nureyev and Baryshnikov at the same time at a 1986 gala at the Met in New York.

London’s bi-annual fashion auctions attract not only museums, couture collectors and legions of film memorabilia collectors but also people who prefer to dress with a difference, who increasingly snap up vintage pieces with or without celebrity provenance.

One regular at Kerry Taylor’s auctions at Sotheby’s is the stylish Kara Sutherland, who makes a special effort to buy every season because she can’t bear to wear the same clothes as everybody else. Since her first auction purchase five years ago, Sutherland has studied which designers and periods to look out for, and one of her most successful buys is a 1960s Warhol Campbell’s Soup dress made of paper. ‘Not everybody likes to wear things that are second-hand,’ Sutherland says, ‘but the friends who are too squeamish to come with me to the sales are invariably the ones who say “where did you GET THAT?” when I turn up in a special vintage piece.’

The good news is that expensive clothes have suddenly become a good investment. This is delightful for those among us who have trembled with guilt as the credit-card machine whirrs, helplessly submitting to a desire for a Louisa Beccaria dress or Jean Muir coat in the face of all reason. When you’ve finished with it, someone else will love it.

A friend asked why my mother hadn’t given her couture to me, but since Leslie is a petite Parisienne, and I’m nearly 5ft 10in, I haven’t been able to wear her clothes without busting the seams since I was twelve. You win some, you lose some, as they say.

‘Passion for Fashion’, Kerry Taylor Auctions in association with Sotheby’s, 26 June 2006. Sotheby’s, 34-35 Bond Street, London W1A 2AA. Tel: 020 8676 4600. Enquiries on exhibition and sale days, 020 7293 5464.
Viewing at Upper Grosvenor Gallery, Friday 23rd, Sat 24th by appointment only, and Sunday 25fh June 12 noon to 4 pm.

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