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.
By Tanika White
Sun Staff

October 30, 2004

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 Trigère 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 Trigère 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.

"In those days, you were expected to dress. Not necessarily always in heels, but suits, dresses like this," Bentley said, pointing to an oatmeal-colored swing dress with flared sleeves, by Jane Derby, who helped de la Renta get his start in fashion.

Throughout her life, Bentley purposely bought American, believing in the importance of the nation's manufacturing industry. And she also bought locally.

Charles Street

Many of her clothes came from Baltimore designers, such as Jeanette Beck and Rose Kaufman. She bought many of her hats from a shop on Charles Street called Jaysan.

"I did a lot of buying on Charles Street," Bentley said. "That's where the best clothes were."

Bentley did buy the best, but her clothes also are special because she was a working woman when she wore them, Herbaugh said, not a socialite.

"This is not a collection," Herbaugh said. "This is someone's wardrobe."

And it's a wardrobe worn by a woman whose work made a difference.

"It was so hard for women in any field," Kraak said, "But particularly in the media and in politics. So Mrs. Bentley's achievements are notable and significant. She's a very important person to Maryland and United States history."

In a photo album, Bentley points to a picture of herself from 1973 in a vibrant psychedelic geometrically patterned dress, as she's being honored at a banquet, along with first lady Pat Nixon. And then there's the very dress, in perfect condition. Another picture of Bentley in a fur-trimmed suit and a grosgrain-brimmed hat, making a speech behind a podium, is also in the album. And then there's that outfit hanging on a rack.

And look, there's the silver and black sequined evening dress she wore to President Richard Nixon's second inauguration, designer unknown.

But, she said, she's keeping that dress - her favorite.

The fact that Bentley has chosen to donate her clothes while she's alive is another exciting factor for the museum curators.

"Having somebody still alive, with the stories to tell you, that doesn't happen very often," Herbaugh said. "Usually, we would lose all that personal connection."

Stories abound

Bentley has countless stories to tell.

One story, in particular, really gets her going. It's about a Navy admiral who came to Capitol Hill one day in the 1980s to garner support for a defense bill.

Bentley reminded him that during World War II, the American textile industry was a huge part of our country's success. Why then, was so much American manufacturing now being done in Korea?

"And he said, 'Well, it's cheaper over there,'" Bentley said. "And I said, 'Well, so are Navy admirals.' And I brought down the house."

Bentley always had a soft spot for the U.S. textile industry.

"I focused on all American manufacturers all my life, on principle," Bentley said. "I felt then, and I still do today, that if we don't have manufacturing in the United States of America, then we are in deep trouble."

That principle is another reason why Bentley's clothes are such a find for the textile museum, Herbaugh said.

"The textile industry really was America's industrial revolution," she said. "And now, what started our industrial development is pretty much gone at this point. It's very sad."

Bentley, too, is saddened by the state of manufacturing, as well as good taste, in our country.

All the clothes you see today are made in some far-off country, cheaply and without pride, she said. The quality is so bad, Bentley said, she won't even buy any contemporary designers, no matter how big the name. No one compares to Pauline Trigère or Geoffrey Beene, she said.

And women dress too skimpily. Men, too casually.

"I think we've all gotten a little bit lazy, including myself. We're blue jeans and sweat shirts. 'I'm comfortable.' That's everybody's excuse," Bentley said. "No matter where you were back in the '50s and '60s and early '70s, you got dressed up when you were out in public."

"What her clothes say," said Kraak, as she caressed one of Bentley's many thick wool suits, " ... is class," Herbaugh finished.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun