The Inimitable Style of Doris Duke

doris-duke-circus-skirt

Famous for her eclectic style, Doris Duke wore this “circus skirt,” made by Malcolm Starr International of Hong Kong, in the 1970s.

Before the fashion industry became an echo chamber of disposable clothing, paparazzi, and celebrity stylists, well dressed women actually had to develop their own sense of style and taste. Doris Duke, tobacco fortune heiress and philanthropist, excelled at this task. Now, a new exhibit, No Rules: The Personal Style of Doris Duke, shows off pieces from her wardrobe that exemplify her distinctive attitude toward style and fashion. The show is on view through November 9 at Duke’s Newport, R.I. home, Rough Point, which is maintained by the Newport Restoration Foundation.

The collection ranges from the understated (an embellished wool-felt skirt) to the show-stopping (a sequined Valentino leopard-print skirt) to the edgy (studded jeans she wore at age 79). Duke’s selections were less about trends than they were about assembling a wardrobe that came together like a collection of art. Indeed, Duke seems to have drawn that parallel herself, having donated many of her designer items to the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And while couture and designer pieces are certainly present (Halston, Madame Grès, Givenchy were favorites), Duke was no label whore. Many of the pieces in the exhibit — like her wardrobe at large — are off-the-rack or non-designer, and several portray a sense of humor (sequined harlequin hot pants, anyone?) without being over-the-top outrageous.


Doris Duke in a turban in 1948. The original caption for this photo called Duke “the world’s richest woman.”

Duke’s fashion sense was inspired by her global travels, particularly to the Middle East, Africa, and Thailand. She preferred uncommon destinations, and to immerse herself in local culture, customs, and art — and this exposure translated into her closet. Unlike some of her stylish contemporaries — Jackie Kennedy, for example — Duke didn’t have a style you could put your thumb on; her choices were eclectic and unexpected, yet distinguished and thoughtful. And while many of the pieces in “No Rules” have a specific sense of era, most all stand the test of time in terms of their relevance to fashion today.

Duke was no minimalist in the closet, but certainly she appears to have been sensible. Photos show her using the same clutch at multiple parties, and the exhibit displays favorite shoes that were well worn and frequently resoled. It’s hard to imagine Duke having an I have nothing to wear! moment — not because her wardrobe was robust and her figure model-like, but because she just wasn’t that kind of fashionista. Sure, Duke may have been one of the world’s richest women, but you don’t have to be a billionaire for the word to be your oyster. When you don’t play by everyone else’s rules, you don’t have to worry about breaking them. What’s really on display in “No Rules” is Duke’s most prevalent and powerful accessory: her confidence. And that, of course, is always in style.

All images courtesy of Newport Restoration Foundation. Click on any photo below to launch the gallery.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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