In 2016, we received a phone call from a not-for-profit foundation with an offer almost too good to be true. They were looking to fund the donation of a set of sketches from the house of Christian Dior to a deserving institution; ‘might FIT Special Collections be willing to accept them gratis with no strings attached?’ Right after we swooned at the suggestion, an email with images of the set of sketches arrived in our email inbox. After a series of additional phone calls, meetings and approvals, the sketches were delivered several weeks later.
At the time of the donation, the former owner relayed to us the the sketches had been executed for a single client as couture models suggested for her debutante season. We couldn’t have been more curious. Dior was under the artistic direction of Marc Bohan at the time. Formerly the head of the London branch of Dior, after Yves Saint Laurent’s unceremonious dismissal from Dior’s Paris-based operations, Bohan was tapped as his successor—a position he maintained for the next thirty years.
Along with the the set of sixty-six sketches executed on Dior letterhead is included a handwritten letter:
‘But who is Miss Coleman?,’ we asked ourselves every time we’ve pulled out this collection over the last five years. Finally, we sat down to get to the bottom of this. All signs point to Miss Coleman being Susan Coleman, who was better known by her nickname ‘Dobbie.’ Born in 1942 in Miami, Oklahoma to parents Elizabeth and George L. Coleman, the family moved to Pebble Beach, California when Dobbie was an infant so George could indulge his passion for golf. Presumably, the family had substantial means as Dobbie and her two sisters, Sarah and Ann, grew up immersed in equestrian sports, and Dobbie proved to be an award winning horsewoman. Her formal education took place at the most prestigious schools in the country, first in Monterey and later at Garrison Forest boarding school in Maryland. Her obituary notes that she attended finishing school in Switzerland there she learned French fluently and later spent time in Italy studying art history.
Though her obituary also states that Dobbie moved to New York City in 1962, an article in the New York Times from December 1965 states that she had only recently moved from the West coast. “In 1965, Edie Sedgwick, 22 years old, dyed her hair silver, became the star of underground movies made by Andy Warhol, the Pop artist and supplanted Baby Jane Holzer, a Park Avenue matron with a lion’s main of blonde hair, as Girl of the Year. By late fall a contender for the title had moved in from the West. The pale brunette partygoer whom all the party guests were noticing is Dobbie Coleman of Pebble Beach, Calif.” The article also notes that, “She is off to Paris soon to train for a public relations job with the House of Dior, in the socialite trend.”
The selection of Marc Bohan for Dior sketches in our collection date from Winter 1965/66 to Winter 1966/67, the precise time Dobbie was making a splash on the New York social scene and preparing to move to Paris. It seems her relationship with Marc Bohan and the house of Dior was about to transition from client to one of a professional nature. Couture houses commonly courted socialites to act as ‘brand ambassadors’ for the house and many who wished to work did so in sales and client relations. Who better to understand the needs of a socialite couture client than one of their own? In Dobbie’s case, however, it appears she never made her way to Paris. In March of 1966, only three short months following the New York Time‘s note that the “Girl of ’66” was on her way to the City of Light, instead Dobbie was at the altar.
On March 21, 1966, 23 year-old Dobbie wed 54 year-old Theodore S. Bassett. Bassett was a known-player on both the New York and London social scenes and noted as a companion of many socialites. This was indeed a curious pivot for Dobbie to abandon her plans for Paris to become the third wife of a gentleman more than twice her age. With Bassett, she had one daughter, Caroline, before the marriage ended. Mother and daughter enjoyed breeding champion Cardigan Welsh Corgi’s together and photographs of them from 1976, by noted photographer Slim Aarons, document Dobbie passing on her love of riding to Caroline at a young age.
Dobbie did eventually make her way to Paris, “a city very dear to her heart”, as noted in her obituary, where she married Pierre de Segur. Our research trail on the life of Susan ‘Dobbie’ Coleman ends with her passing on November 4, 2010, but she lives on here in FIT Special Collections by way of the sketches of promised couture creations by Marc Bohan for Dior from 1965-1967.