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Doris Duke’s Sporty Side in Newport Exhibit

Doris Duke’s Sporty Side in Newport Exhibit

Saturday, March 05, 2011

GoLocalProv Lifestyle Team

From the beach to the bowling alley, from surfing to skiing, Doris Duke was a woman who loved to play.

A new exhibit at her Newport mansion Rough Point reveals the sporting side of the noted heiress and historic preservationist’s personality. Visitors can admire Doris Duke’s stylish sportswear alongside items of her personal sports equipment in Dressed to Play: The Sporty Style of Doris Duke. The exhibit illustrates her athletic lifestyle, which included surfing in Hawaii and daily swims in Newport. Fun, playful fashions from the 1940s-1970s will make visitors nostalgic for the classic styles of their mothers and grandmothers era. A collection of her personal sports equipment, including a surfboard, tennis racquet, golf clubs, scuba gear, riding habit and bowling ball, is displayed along with never before seen images of Doris Duke in action. The exhibit opens on April 14, 2011.

The active heiress

Doris Duke lived an active life filled with sports well into her later years. She swam off the rocks of Rough Point, surfed at her home in Hawaii, and bowled and rode horses at Duke Farms in New Jersey. She studied dance with choreographers around the world and was a member of Martha Graham’s Dance Company in New York. She had tennis courts at each of her homes – a passion that began as a child playing tennis with her friend Alletta Morris on the courts at the Newport Casino. Daily swims were an important part of Doris Duke’s regimen of healthy living. For many years, she swam off the rocks behind Rough Point. Later, she had a salt-water swimming pool installed in the house’s basement.

Exhibit highlights sporting gear

Two of the exhibit’s highlights are equipment related to Doris Duke’s love of water sports. The first is a Velzy Surfboard, ca. 1960, made of foam polyurethane and fiberglass. Created by Dale Velzy, who is believed to have opened the first conventional surf shop in California in 1949, the surfboard was used by Doris Duke at Shangri La, her home in Hawaii. It is notable as one of the first boards Velzy created using the new foam polyurethane material; boards were previously made of balsa wood. The second item is a pair of wooden water skis, circa 1935, which measure nearly nine feet in length. The large size of the skis helped to maintain stability on rougher ocean water. Both pieces are on loan from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art which runs Shangri La.

Soon after settling at Shangri La in 1938, Doris Duke became involved with surfing. She quickly became friends with the Kahanamoku family. Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic diver and celebrated champion surfer, and his brother, Sam, taught her to surf. Her aptitude for the sport is evidenced by a gold and sapphire powder compact included in the exhibit, inscribed January 22, 1939, recognizing Mrs. James H. R. Cromwell (as Doris Duke was then known) and Mr. Sam A. Kahanamoku for winning first prize in a Waikiki tandem surfboard paddling contest. This piece is also on loan from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

Dressing for play

Doris Duke’s active lifestyle required a wardrobe that included comfortable, practical clothing to participate in a number of sporting activities. Sportswear, which began in the 1920s as specialized clothing for activities like tennis and hunting, became part of mainstream fashion during the 20th century. Social norms about public sports and activities for women expanded during this time, allowing sweaters, pants, skirts, blazers, and casual dresses to become regular items in a woman’s wardrobe. Exhibit curator Kristen Costa Francoeur explains, “These clothes may seem like everyday items to us now, but Doris Duke was on the cutting edge of fashion – she was wearing sportswear as it was being created and her busy lifestyle is shaping her wardrobe.”

Doris Duke’s wardrobe included a wide range of casual and active apparel made by American and European designers such as Jantzen, Valentino, and Giorgio Sant’Angelo.
One of the clothing highlights of the exhibit is a 1958 sundress by Tina Leser, one of the earliest American sportswear designers. During the 1930s-1950s, the United States was producing some of the best sportswear in the world. This sportswear was designed by women and it was the first time female designers had their name in the limelight.

“Dressed to Play: The Sporty Style of Doris Duke” will be on exhibit in the galleries at Rough Point through early November 2011. Guided house tours, which last approximately 75 minutes and include the exhibit, cost $25. Children 12 and younger are admitted for free. Tours are offered 10-2, Thursday-Saturday, April 14 – May 14. From May 17 to November 5, tours are offered 9:45-3:45, Tuesday-Saturday. For those wishing to see only the exhibit, gallery hours are offered on Saturdays from 1-4 for $5. In addition, the galleries are open during a series of special evening events offered as part of Newport Gallery Night, held on the second Thursday of each month. For more information or to buy tickets, visit or call (401) 847-8344. The Spring Seasons Inn is close to Rough Point and offers room packages that include admission to Rough Point

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86 Spring Street, Newport, RI 02840  |  401-849-0004  |  887-294-0004  |