As we abandon this world for the next, the most powerful traces we leave behind are found in the imprinted threads of our daily lives. Our most compelling posthumous stories are found in the clothes we wore, and as it happens, in those we did not. At first, the death of Houghton le Spring’s Vervia Todd seemed respectably commonplace; she passed at the mannerly age of 92, and, having never married, left no immediate family behind. But, as the executors of her will began clearing out the dusty yellowed townhouse Todd had lived in for over ninety years, they found it stuffed to the gills with the trappings of an entire life: satin dresses, wool skirts and striped tops, leather pumps and straw baskets, boxes of undisturbed perfumes, all in the rarest, tiptop condition.
Dubbed a real-life Miss Havisham after the mothy Dickensian spinster from Great Expectations, Ms. Todd quietly amassed a collection worthy of a lifetime of dedicated consumption. What’s more, she did so unbeknownst to anyone around her. The result? One of the most extensive, pristine and chronologically thorough personal collections no one knew existed. Her dedication was as steadfast as any clotheshorse, but the thrill lay in the means rather than the end. Todd took yearly trips abroad, most often to Sorrento Italy and would return with trunks full of stylish wares. More often than not, the loot was left packed away. But whether she amassed the pieces for posterity or simply to scratch an itch is beside the point; it takes nothing away from a sartorial legacy, and in fact, leaves us with a rare chance to the view our dressed past with concurrent consideration.
Vervia Todd moved into the three-story townhouse as a one-year-old infant. After the tragic death of her fiancé at the Battle of Amhem, she stayed on with her parents and never married, inheriting the home after their deaths. Today, the rooms, wallpapered in heavy midcentury florals and peppered with aged furnishings, hold racks upon racks the catalogued inventory, thirteen months of work taken on by close friend Sheila Ellis and cousin Ann. Vintage dealer Paula Donalson was brought in to help archive the stock; a few pieces (her mother and grandmother’s wedding gowns) will likely go on display at the Beamish Museum, but the bulk of the estate will be up for public auction this Saturday, December 7.
It will be a singular experience for collectors and nostalgia enthusiasts. Ms. Todd’s home is a certifiable time warp, her cache in conditions most museums can only dream of. In the context of the cramped rooms, the narrative of dress is heightened – the specificity of novelty prints, the timelessness of stripes. Vintage lingerie, hosiery, shampoos and perfumes lie undisturbed in faded packaging. Forgotten labels rematerialize (Fred Howard, Marshall and Snelgrove, Polly Peck). Silhouette mutations are traced from nipped wasp waists to amorphous shifts. A stain tinted diamante clutch, wispy crepe de chine butterfly sleeves, a psychedelic brocade and a dusty rose silk peppered with delicate periwinkle star burst; all wait patiently to finally take the form of a body. Their time will come soon enough. For now, may we be thankful for Ms. Todd’s reluctance to impose her own impression; for that we had the chance for a quick glimpse a treasure trove of our collective past.