The Fabric Of Her Life

Helen Delich Bentley decides to give away some clothes, and the American Textile History Museum comes knocking on her door.

October 30, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

When Helen Delich Bentley, the former Maryland congresswoman and journalist, cleans out her closets, museums take notice.

Curators working for the American Textile History Museum in Massachusetts descended this week on Bentley's Lutherville home, combing for days through the racks and racks of clothes, shoes and hats the political powerhouse had amassed over the years.

In the family room, there were racks of heavy wool suits by American designer Pauline TrigM-hre and intricate evening dresses by Oscar de la Renta. In the dining room and garage, tables were covered with colorful hats by such names as Adolfo. Stacks of 1960s pointy-toed shoes from Saks Fifth Avenue were hanging in an office closet.

The house was filled from top to bottom with beautifully made clothes from the 1950s, '60s and '70s - all by American designers.

Day dresses, cocktail dresses, coats, ball gowns.

Going through Bentley's closets, the curators said, was like finding a textile treasure trove.

But what the curators found even more impressive was what was hidden behind the classic clothing: a history lesson in Bentley's rare ability to thrive in a man's world - while unapologetically remaining very much a woman.

"Helen Bentley was such a very important part of American politics," said Deborah E. Kraak, a historic textile consultant and appraiser doing freelance work for the Massachusetts textile museum. "We're hoping that some of the clothes will go to Maryland institutions as well, so there'll be a record of this singular woman who served the country for so many years."

In her heyday as both a journalist - she was The Sun's maritime editor and the nation's only female marine newspaper reporter - and former 2nd District congresswoman, Bentley was widely known for what she wore.

One fellow journalist, Albert Dennis, writing a profile about Bentley, had this to say in a fall 1966 publication, about what happened when the ace reporter hurried into the newsroom to file a story:

"The clattering cacophony of typewriters and telephones is suddenly interrupted while hard-nose reporters and cynical city editors stop and stare to see what she is wearing."

When the textile museum's executives got a call from Bentley saying she was ready to get rid of just about all of her impeccable suits, elegant evening gowns and fabulous hats - all by American designers - they jumped at the chance to get their hands on it first.

Bentley had researched where she wanted to send her clothes, looking specifically for a museum that cared about quality clothes.

"I felt that they should go to an American textile museum," she said.

"Mrs. Bentley has bought some of the best names in American design," said Karen J. Herbaugh, curator at the museum in Lowell, Mass. "You just don't see these kinds of textiles, this kind of production anymore."

Bentley, 80, knew exactly what she had in the five packed closets where she stashed her wardrobe. That's why she called the museum several months ago to alert them that she was planning to cull her collection and clear some space for new clothes, and new memories.

"My husband was in the antique business. He died a year-and-a-half ago," Bentley said. "I went to enough estate sales to see what happens to people's property at auctions. And I'm determined that's not going to happen to my stuff. People don't know the value of what they have."

As a woman who took exceptional care of her countless outfits, Bentley wanted her clothes to go to people who would do the same.

The museum curators have only just begun estimating how much Bentley's close to 200 items of clothing - plus more than 100 hats and scores of shoes and purses - will be worth. But they say it will likely be quite a sum.

Not all of the clothes will go to the Massachusetts textile museum. The curators will take what is the best and most complete, and what they think will work best in future exhibits. What's left over, the curators will try to persuade other museums, researchers or historical fashion enthusiasts to take.

The women's work appraising, tagging and cataloging Bentley's wardrobe was slow this week. So much time was spent remarking on the craftsmanship of the clothing and the condition Bentley kept them in.

"The fabrics are wonderful, the cuts are expert. There's very innovative tailoring," Kraak said. "We've been oohing and ahing for days."

Bentley's clothes are indeed exquisite - heavy and expertly made. None of the flimsy, mass-marketing we're used to today.

There's the ribbed, charcoal two-piece wool skirt suit by Pauline TrigM-hre with a rare seamless connection between the sleeves and the body of the jacket. The gray wool suit discreetly lined in hot pink, with black polka dots. And the perfectly crafted pieces by Donald Brooks, Geoffrey Beene, Oscar de la Renta.

And then there were the hats.

All sorts of hats in countless styles and colors. Hats with feathers, beads, sequins, ribbons, belts and jewels. Hats for winter, hats for summer. Wide-brimmed hats she wore on the campaign trail.

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