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‘Ava’s Closet’ celebrates the style of Johnston County’s favorite daughter

When the door opens to a glamorous Hollywood star’s clothes closet, a “casual” outfit might seem dressed up by today’s standards. At least it might if you glanced into a closet belonging to Ava Gardner.

Born in Grabtown, near Smithfield in Johnston County, Gardner made her way to Hollywood and became one of the American Film Institute’s “Greatest American Screen Legends.” And her personal style, inspired by her film wardrobes, made her a fashion icon across the decades.

Gardner’s sense of style will be celebrated this weekend with the opening of a new exhibit during the annual Ava Gardner Festival at the Ava Gardner Museum in downtown Smithfield. “Ava’s Closet” will feature the sultry actress’ film costumes and items of personal clothing, many of which have never been displayed.

“We’re going to have 16 different outfits on display in the gallery, and we’re also going to have her accessories in a different case,” said Deanna Brandenberger, the museum’s new executive director. Brandenberger has spent recent days working with board members and volunteers to place outfits on mannequins and arrange accessories for Friday night’s “Fashion Fling” reception, which features a musical tribute to Frank Sinatra, Gardner’s third husband..

Saturday’s guest speaker will be Raleigh’s Justin LeBlanc, an N.C. State University professor of design and a star of the reality TV show “Project Runway.”

LeBlanc recently visited the museum to see Gardner’s items up close, and he came away with an appreciation for her sense of style.

“I realized that she appreciated fashion, clearly understood her personal style, and was not afraid to express it,” LeBlanc said. “I found her own personal garments to be the most interesting. She preferred black and white, colors that accentuated the form and beauty of the garment’s structure. And her own unique beauty. ... she used color to clarify her personal statement of style, not to define it.”

LeBlanc, like many of Gardner’s fans, wishes he’d had the chance to know her.

“I think she would have appreciated my emphasis of form over color,” he said. “My willingness to experiment with 3-D printing. We are alike in our passion for the artistic side of fashion; the drive to explore new territory. While still being deeply rooted in North Carolina.”

A tasteful display

The exhibit’s highlight is likely to be a tiara Gardner wore to movie premieres.

“We have pictures of Ava wearing it,” Brandenberger said. “The first photo is a premiere of ‘The Barefoot Contessa,’ which would have been in 1954. The piece is fairly old. It is missing a few stones … yet it is still stunning.”

The headpiece was donated this year by Gardner’s personal assistant, Carmen Vargas, who was with the actress until Gardner died in 1990 at age 67 in London.

The exhibit will focus on four categories: evening, daytime, lingerie and accessories, Brandenberger said.

Gardner, known for marriages to actor Mickey Rooney, bandleader Artie Shaw and singer Frank Sinatra, as well as for her 18-inch waist, would have worn some garments to shows, dinners or parties, and others would have been worn casually, for example, for shopping.

“We have some more intimate items that would have been considered lingerie back in the day, such as her robes,” Brandenberger said. “We won’t have her underwear on display. It will be tasteful.”

The fashion items from the star of such films as “The Sun Also Rises” should appeal to many people, Brandenberger said. She anticipates seeing people interested in the actress of the 1940s and ’50s, plus fans of her pinup photos and a younger generation attracted by Gardner’s inspiration of entertainers such as Lady Gaga.

Though Gardner is often remembered for MGM’s “cheesecake photos,” Ava’s Closet items will be things she “chose to wear,” Brandenberger said.

“She was already a woman of discovery,” she said. “She was already finding out who she was. She was dressing like a woman, not a girl.”