The problem with museum acquisitions…

In my experience, fashion museums have three problems to deal with when it comes to acquiring artifacts:

  • The museum is the last to know

unknown 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.

imagesWe 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?

iris-van-herpen-20100b94d66cfe63de8596af9f79a460a3a0If 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.

  • Fakes

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.

fb104381-1stephen-lewis-dior-souvenir-tourSometimes 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.

1-dior-palmyre-1952-detail-x468

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
This entry was posted in Designers/Couturiers, Other collections/museums and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The problem with museum acquisitions…

  1. Was it a forgery in 1952, when it was presumably sold by Nanty as a couture copy? The question is interesting, because this would seem to be more a case of caveat emptor – an opportunistic dealer pushing their luck, hoping that they could find someone gullible enough to pay out, while claiming innocence if called out on it.

    What would be really interesting would be to know if the interior of the dress or the labelling shows signs of having been tampered with to make it appear like a real Dior – in which case a legit(?) contemporary copy would have been tweaked enough to make it a forgery.

    • Jonathan says:

      Although some companies are very protective of their brand these days, in 1952 it would have been considered a legal knock-off because they hadn’t pretended it to be anything but. It’s a shame the validity of knock-offs are now being destroyed by unscrupulous dealers who see opportunity by removing labels. You are so right – buyer beware! You have to know what the inside of a couture dress looks like from the 1950s to know if you are buying the real thing.

  2. Christina Johnson says:

    Thank you for bravely bringing up the issue of fakes and forgeries in today’s vintage market. Curators need to be aware of this growing problem. We need to always take a close look at the objects we purchase and the dealers we work with.

    • Jonathan says:

      It is a growing problem. There is a dealer from Israel on Etsy that has some of the worst fakes ever. I have complained about her to Etsy dozens of times and yet nothing is ever done. Because of people like that who get away with it – others think its okay to play too!

      I was once told by a respectable businessman ‘everybody lies’… Yes, I may say I like your hair when I think you look like a tart, but the world can’t go on with the understanding that ‘everybody lies’.

  3. This is interesting and I am glad to be able to refresh my knowledge of fashion happenings (good and bad) through the lens of an expert such as yourself. I hope not to come across any such misrepresentation in my curating role in a small country museum, Most of my problems stem from absolutely no provenance at all or any labels right or otherwise. Keep up the good work.

  4. Marion van der Fluit says:

    The Palmyre gown on the right photo is also unusual.
    The dresses I saw where all in blue tones.
    I would love to see the back side of the Australian “Dior”.
    The sequin embroidery by Lesage or Rébé would have been done with a tambour hook.

    • Jonathan says:

      The coloured one is magnificent of course, but you are right, all the other pics of this dress I could find online use blue ornamentation.

  5. Another important point – a 1952 Dior wouldn’t be made from acetate satin. When the V&A acquired their Zemire gown from 1954, it was a REALLY big deal that it had been made from acetate satin, rather than silk satin – it was a special commission for Lady Sekers made using fabric from her husband’s mills, hence the unusual use of a synthetic fabric, (also, it was vibrant red rather than muted grey silk satin)

    So acetate satin for a Dior from 1952 would be highly suspect. By the end of the decade, you do see Paris couture dresses that use synthetic fabrics more openly. London couturiers were less snobby about that – Worth of London advertised dresses made from rayon and acrylic in the early 1950s as part of a drive to promote synthetic fabrics – but yes, unless it was a Schiaparelli in a really crazy fabric, I’d be looking very askance at a synthetic satin Paris couture model from the early 1950s.

    • Jonathan says:

      Acetate was a red flag for me too. Dior is not an acetate kind of guy… I can’t even think of a Dior New York or Holt Renfrew version in acetate – not that early anyway – maybe after 1962.

    • Jonathan says:

      There must be another explanation… A Dior show that is about to open at the Royal Ontario Museum this November includes their copy of the Palmyre dress that was donated to the museum in 1970 (so its not a recent forgery). While the quality of the decoration is better than from what I can see on the Australian version, the dress was artlessy cut and seamed through the embroidery (which may be n alteration required to fit the wearer) and the dress is identified by the ROM as being made of acetate. I suspect this is a demi-couture piece sold through department stores in designer salons (a version of today’s bridge lines) and boutiques that carried Dior. It can’t be true Haute Couture… I smell an interesting research paper on the variations of the Palmyre dress…

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