Celebrating an era when style mattered

AT FIRST glance, Newbridge and Hollywood wouldn’t appear to have a lot in common — the Kildare town and Tinseltown would seem to be worlds apart both geographically and culturally.

However, the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons, the permanent exhibition of celebrity memorabilia and artifacts related to stars of the silver screen (which was opened by Newbridge Silverware in 2007) has brought a dusting of glamour to this midland county.

The museum, now one of the top five free tourist destinations in Ireland, has rapidly evolved into a consuming passion for Newbridge CEO William Doyle, who built it in two months after making his initial purchase of an Audrey Hepburn LBD (by Hubert De Givenchy) from the movie Charade. Since this first acquisition, the collecting bug has bitten deep and William Doyle has succeeded in creating a hugely impressive collection of items that have either been worn or owned by a galaxy of stars including Liz Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Michael Jackson, Liza Minelli, Rita Hayworth, Princess Diana, Ingrid Bergman, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, and the Beatles.

Newbridge Silverware is 80 years old next year and William Doyle’s family have been involved in the business since the 1970s, when his father Dominic, bought the company as part of a group of local businessmen.

It is the only surviving plant of its type left in Europe, and while the museum may have initially been conceived purely as an initiative to “enhance the brand”, William Doyle has been seduced by its allure so that it now increasingly consumes his attention.

With 350,000 visitors a year and a growing profile both nationally and internationally, the museum is an amazing destination both for movie fans attracted by the reflected glow of celebrity glamour, or by serious style mavens with a fascination for iconic fashion.

Currently the museum is hosting the famous Dorothy costume worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, which has become a cherished work of American popular culture despite being released in 1939 to underwhelming box office receipts of $3,017,000 on a budget of $2m. This is the last complete surviving dress (which includes both original blouse and pinafore) and the blue and white Adrienne costume, which recently sold for a record $480,000 at Julien’s Auctions in Novembe,r will remain on display in Newbridge until July 31.

The dress was authenticated by specialists from the studios who noted the secret pocket inside to conceal Garland’s cigarettes — a devoted smoker, she was 15-16 years old when shooting the movie and playing down to a mere 12-13.

Martin J Nolan, a native of Kiltoom, Athlone, and the executive director of Julien’s Auctions, leaders in the field of Hollywood, sports, and rock and roll memorabilia based in Beverly Hills, personally brought the costume to Ireland for the exhibit (with an unexpected and co-incidental flight diversion to Kansas thanks to the recent tornado in Oklahoma).

The dress isn’t the only costume item from the movie to fetch a fantastical price: the academy recently paid $2m for a pair of the movie’s red slippers for its own museum of memorabilia and costume, which it plans to open in 2017. Martin explains the popularity of these artifacts not only as popular investments and conversation pieces that appreciate in value but also as a means of “buying a memory, buying a story” that has a collective resonance.

Clients are buying nostalgia: “a moment and a memory”, not merely a garment or a piece of fabric. Originally a stockbroker, he is now immersed in the lucrative commodity of celebrity and reels off stories of clients and collections at a dizzying pace.

He has been involved in the sale of collections or items from Greta Garbo, Madonna, Prince, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and our own Edge and Bono.

One of his largest projects was the cataloguing of the contents of Neverland, Michael Jackson’s home, which took 90 days, for a proposed auction, which never transpired as Jackson had a last minute change of heart. He did at least have the pleasure of later selling Jackson’s red leather Thriller jacket for $1.8m.

The collection at Newbridge may not have any items with such a staggering price tag, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fascinating for other reasons. Walking the exhibit is like getting a glimpse into your favourite star’s wardrobe — you get to marvel at how slim and svelte Marilyn’s size 10 Pucci dress is (when we have all been told that she was a size 16), how soft and innocent Diana looked in her demure engagement blouse from the Emmanuels versus how empowered she looked in her Revenge dress worn on the evening that Charles confessed his infidelity with Camilla to Jonathan Dimbleby, or how the exquisite Helen Rose dress worn by Grace Kelly in High Society turned out to be her last film costume, her next role being that of a real life princess bride in Monaco, (dress also by Helen Rose).

As I scanned this dress and the Givenchy bright green dress and jacket worn by Princess Grace to meet President Lemass on a state visit to Ireland and later to the White House to meet President Kennedy, I overheard two older women discussing the star’s married life: “Aah yes, she wasn’t a bit happy with him, Rainier, you know. Took to the drink and all…”

The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor runs until Aug 25. This is the first time the exhibit will be seen anywhere in the world ahead of it being featured as part of a Hollywood Icons auction to be held at Julien’s Auctions Beverly Hills gallery in October. The exhibit showcases the life of an extraordinary woman who confidently embraced the styles of each era.

It features couture pieces, high fashion outfits, garments acquired during her global travels, and custom made vintage fashions and pieces from her favourite Beverly Hills boutiques dating from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Fans will experience the history of her career starting with the Hollywood dresses of the 1950s to the mini and maxi dresses, and caftans of the 1960s and 1970s.

As her life took on a more conservative role when she married the US politician Senator John Warner, Taylor often wore more conservative styles which will also be part of the exclusive exhibit. Several fashions in the collection also include those worn by Taylor during her many presidential and world leader meetings and many of her most popular celebrity related events and television roles.

The variety of garments is engrossing — there’s Audrey’s bright pink Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress, a calico toile of Princess Diana’s wedding dress, slick Rat Pack tailoring from Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior, a gorgeous statuesque lace dress worn by Jayne Mansfield, historical costumes by Walter Plunkett for Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen, socialite Anne Bullitt’s intricately-pleated Sybil Connolly evening dresses and Greta Garbo’s dramatic full sleeved silk housecoat worn in the film Camille in 1936.

Textile conservator, Rachel Phelan, who worked on conserving this Garbo costume, Marilyn’s jacket from The Prince and the Showgirl, the Sybil Connolly dresses and other items in the collection acknowledges that it is “an amazing collection”; that William Doyle has “a great eye” and that he always “buys interesting pieces” that the Victoria and Albert, the Metropolitan or the Musée De La Mode “would covet”.

Her work on the collection is “slightly obsessive”, something between “an art and a science” with items potentially taking 500 to 1000 hours to “stabilise”.

She is rigorous about her work: “You treat every object to a specific set of ethical standards.”

Other fascinating memorabilia in the museum includes costume sketches by Edith Head winner of eight Academy Awards for costume design, the original glitter ball from Saturday Night Fever, Audrey Hepburn’s letters to her father in Merrion Square, which all start poignantly “Dearest Daddy”, or Bert Stern’s Last Sitting prints of Marilyn looking dishevelled, sad and tired.

As a day out it is to be highly recommended — combining as it does contemporary culture’s obsession with celebrity, a sample of couture style fashion and a nostalgic glimpse into an era of pure glamour which most of us can only dream of.

They are all original garments as worn by the stars — and as our fascination with fame shows no immediate sign of abating — they are nearest we can come to trying to touch those elusive stars in our own lives.

The resonance of these items is perhaps that we feel we can steal a little of the souls of those stars who have worn them, by merely being in their presence.

Nowadays, stars are brands, business empires and commodities.

The Newbridge Museum of Style Icons celebrates an era when they were just stars, and fabulous ones at that.


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