Byline: Jessica Kerwin

NEW YORK — “Show me the clothes of a country and I can write its history,” boasted Anatole France. Well, it’d be something to see what old Anatole could come up with after riffling through the dizzying array of clothes packed into the William Doyle Galleries this week. The house’s biannual Couture, Textiles and Accessories auction will whisk through 200 years of fashion history at about 100 lots an hour this coming Wednesday and Thursday, from early 19th-century Empire cotton dresses right on through to Giorgio di Sant’Angelo’s rainbow stripes and a little black dress safety-pinned across the bodice by Jean Paul Gaultier.
The earliest pieces come by way of Suzi’s Antiques, a recently closed shop in Virginia where costume designers once snapped up gowns for “Titanic.” There is a stunning set of beaded Art Deco numbers from the Twenties, a group of corsets and shapers and an unusual lot that once raised cries of dissent — a three-piece bloomer ensemble from the 1880s, when women certainly didn’t wear pants. “I’ve never seen one quite like it before,” muses Doyle specialist Jan Reeder. “I wonder if she was a rebel.”
It’s just the sort of lot that catches an expert’s eye, although the sale offers plenty beyond its rarities. “Doyle always strikes a balance between pieces that are perfect for serious collectors and museums, and those that are right for the wearer’s market,” says Hamish Bowles, who curated the Metropolitan Museum’s current Costume Institute exhibit and who dropped in for a preview. “I’ve found incredible things here.”
The most exceptional lot, however, is an elaborate velvet and satin gown designed by Worth in 1888 and worn, ten-and-a-half foot train and all, by Esther Maria Lewis Chapin, a descendant of George Washington, when the then-17-year-old was presented at court in Europe.
“The Worth is something so extraordinary that it will come and go and we may never see one like it again,” says Linda Donahue, Doyle’s specialist for the sale. And Donahue knows from whence she speaks. Since joining the company in 1983, she’s organized all of Doyle’s couture and textile auctions, but she has also been collecting vintage clothes since she was 21 years old. “I moved to London in the Sixties when all the fashion was coming from the Victorian era and the fabulous Indian robes of The Beatles. I was just fascinated,” she says. In the beginning, Donahue’s couture auctions were linked to famous names — such as Gloria Swanson and Ruth Gordon — but then she found that the clothes themselves could carry a sale.
“The most exciting part is that you never know how an auction will unfold,” she says.
Especially at a Doyle sale. This season’s brings out a Charles James circa 1952 in ivory lace and black velvet estimated to go for between $300 and $500. But in 1996, a Charles James broke records when it sold for $49,450. It was a simple black gown that came to Doyle when the owner of a local thrift store showed it to Donahue. The shop had originally priced it at $15.
In 1999, Doyle broke the sales record for a hat sold at auction with “Independence Day,” a piece covered in flags, patriotic bunting and real firecrackers by Bes-Ben designer Benjamin Green-Field, a Donahue favorite who provided Lucille Ball and Hedda Hopper with some of their kookier head gear. It was sold for $18,400 to an Illinois collector who planned to wear it for the Millennium. The Bes-Ben lots in this week’s auction are decorated with bunches of fake fruit and tiny people.
“The surprise is the mid-century American pieces,” says Harold Koda, curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, who also stopped in for a preview. “In the Eighties and early Nineties, these pieces had some value, but not great value — except, of course, for those by Charles James. Now that they wear these dresses in Hollywood, I’m seeing them in a whole new way. One can imagine them on the red carpet.”
For fear of destabilizing the market, Koda places his bids through others instead of attending the Doyle sales. “That way it doesn’t create a feeding frenzy,” he says.
But this season the sale’s Bakelite and costume jewelry lots alone could heat things up. The array includes whimsical designs by Miriam Haskell and Elsa Schiaparelli, and others from the over 10,000 pieces collected by the notorious Dennis Masellis, now serving time on Rikers Island after embezzling over $7 million from the law firm where he was employed. He spent all the cash on costume jewelry and couture clothing, or so the story goes.
In the lineup of gowns are a wacky Claire McCardell party dress printed with pink shrimp, a Norman Norell mermaid dress and others by James Galanos, Balenciaga, Rudi Gernreich, Halston and even Zandra Rhodes. Some of the most beautiful items, however, are those that photographer Bill Cunningham has collected in the course of his 53-year- fashion career. A fantastically feathered Christian Dior hat that Cunningham found at a Paris flea market was worn by Daisy Fellowes at Carlos de Bestigui’s Venice ball in 1951, while some of the feathered masks Cunningham himself designed were worn to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966. The collection also includes fashion illustrations by Kenneth Paul Block, Georges Lepape and Antonio, and murals that Cunningham rescued from the Ziegfeld Theater in 1967, just days before its demolition.
Now the only question is who gets what. As Doyle-devotee Nina Griscom can tell you, sometimes the bidding becomes frenzied. “It creates its own conundrum,” she says. “You don’t want to bid against your friends, but….”