In my experience, fashion museums have three problems to deal with when it comes to acquiring artifacts:
The museum is the last to know
Museums are often the last place to be contacted. After grandma dies, every female in the family ransacks the closet for mementos, wearables, or items of value that can be resold on Etsy. The next person called is usually a local dealer or auctioneer, and by the time the museum is called what is left consists of unexciting pieces like autumn haze mink stoles, pairs of white kid gloves, and yellowing acetate wedding dresses.
We were once contacted by a woman about a massive collection of clothing from the 40s and 50s that her recently deceased mother had made. The daughter’s voice quivered when she spoke of wanting a couple of her mom’s pieces preserved for posterity in a museum. We came to see what she had, and after going through ten boxes of pretty standard children’s clothing I had pulled a boy’s suit from the early 1950s, and a girl’s dress from the late 1950s. The daughter refused to tell me when the dress was made because it had been hers and giving the date would reveal her age… And then she let it slip that a dealer had gone through everything the previous day and taken what were probably the best pieces…
Sometimes we get an offer of an exciting piece – like a couture dress from the 1920s, but when it is brought in, it turns out the owner had worn it to a party and torn out the underarms and ripped the hem in the process. This has happened more than once.
But is it fashion?
If money allows, it’s too easy for museums to purchase crazy items. The FHM doesn’t have this problem due to a lack of funds, however, many museums buy garments that are irrelevant examples of real fashion. In my opinion, the unique quality of true fashion is that it balances art and commerce – a dress that nobody wears is not fashion, it’s wearable art.
The market for vintage fashion has soared the past thirty years, especially for designer clothing, and this has made forgeries profitable. I have seen ready-to wear labels recut to imitate couture labels, designer tie labels used as dress labels (Lanvin, Dior, Schiaparelli, Cardin all had lines of men’s ties), photocopied labels, as well as labels moved from lesser garments that are real, into flashier dresses that are not.
Sometimes the attempts are amateurish and obvious. I once purchased a Chanel suit from a blurry picture on eBay. Although it was pink wool tweed and early 1960s, upon receiving the suit it was obviously American ready-to-wear workmanship, and the label, which had been sewn in with the wrong coloured thread, probably had been taken from a 1980s blouse. I had paid $75.00 for it, and when I returned it to the dealer she refunded my money without a fuss.
However, there are far more clever deceptions being done. A recent acquisition of 130 dresses by an Australian gallery from a French couturier has a suspicious looking dress in its midst that I seriously question. The dress is purported to be by Dior – an example of his Palmyre evening gown from 1952. It looks impressive at first glance (see above left), but the embroidery is more spare than a verifiably real gown (see above right), and in the close-up, the work (bottom left) looks clumsily sequinned with standard-looking artlessly-arranged couched thread work that looks like lurex. The acetate fabric (identified by the gallery in their description) was probably embroidered somewhere other than Paris and then exported somewhere like the U.S. where it was made up by a company like Nanty in New York – a company known for knocking off Dior evening wear in the 1950s. A real dress (bottom right) shows a far more finessed version of embroidery on what certainly appears to be silk with better placed sequins and beads, and chain-stitched silver gilt thread. The possible knock-off cost the Australian museum more than $10,000, and that means this is a serious issue if its a forgery – more problematic than a misidentification.