Cultural Appropriation or Admiration?

The topic of fashion and cultural appropriation rears its head once again – this time Dior is in trouble for an advertising campaign that got nixed before it was even launched. A campaign for their men’s fragrance Sauvage (which means ‘Wild’ in French), starring Johnny Depp, has already been pulled. Clips of a Native dancer and Rosebud Sioux Native actor Canku One Star are shown between images of Johnny Depp playing the guitar and doing ‘Johnny Depp’-like loner activities.

Dior said in a release that the advertisement “was meant to be a celebration of the beauty, dignity, and grace of the contemporary Native American culture”. It was created with the full cooperation of the Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) organization who stated: “The goals of AIO for providing consultations on media productions are to ensure inclusion of paid Native staff, artists, actors, writers, etc., to educate the production teams on Native American contemporary realities and to create allies for Indigenous peoples. AIO does not speak for all Native Americans. We are proud to have successfully achieved our goals of education and inclusion for this project with Parfums Christian Dior.” However, once a massive backlash began over the advert, AIO wrote via Instagram “Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) deeply regrets its participation in the Dior campaign.”

While I can point out some issues I have with the ad (where does Johnny Depp plug in his electric guitar on top of a mesa, why the Inukshuk, and why is there a Plains dancer in the Southwest?), the mob ready to lynch Dior was out of proportion to any offence the advert may have inadvertently created. Knee-jerk reactions to anything that smacks of cultural appropriation are leading to a world where everything is so culturally segregated that there will be public shaming unless only the rehashing of established boundaries are pursued by anybody judged to be of European descent. As writer Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times points out, that for Dior: “…it doesn’t encourage any kind of cross-cultural fertilization or civil debate. When you get mocked for claiming you tried, why try at all? And if you don’t try at all, where does that leave us? Endlessly plowing the same New Look furrow…”

What this will do is make producers of adverts, television shows, and films, avoid referring to, showing, or hiring anyone Native for any production. It’s not worth the trouble.

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.


As Seen In – Spring 1948 Dior

IMGP8774I acquired this Christian Dior dress for the FHM a couple of years ago from Past Perfect Vintage. It is from the spring 1948 ‘Envol’ (take-off or fly away) collection and is in a pretty petrol blue coloured silk. The style includes a wide collar, open neckline, blousy bodice and skirt drawn up at the sides to sit tight across the hips at front, sweeping the fullness of the skirt to the back. The dress is one of several from the FHM collection being considered by the House of Dior for a publication about the company’s history on the occasion of it’s 70th anniversary in 2017. Dior has asked fifty collections around the world for contributions for their commemorative book.



6A green version of this dress was illustrated in L’Officiel (issue 315-316) with the suggestion for wearing the dress for the five o’clock hour (cocktails). The illustration shows the bodice fitting tighter and the skirt fuller – the result of a bit of artistic license by the illustrator. LIFE magazine featured Christian Dior in their March 1948 issue with many photographs of that season’s fashion show – click here for LIFE article.

Knock-off not Rip-off

Dior 'Delphine' 1956

Dior ‘Delphine’ 1956

Sari silk knock-off, unlabelled, c. 1956-57

Sari silk knock-off, unlabelled, c. 1956-57

Before the days of lawsuits over red soles, quilted leather, and contrast stitching, there was a system that started at the top and worked its way down the fashion food chain, and here is a great example. Created by Dior for the autumn 1956 collection, ‘Delphine’ is the model name for the cherry red taffeta couture dress on the left from the Royal Ontario Museum collection. (Note the error in styling: the folds of the drape at the waist should be tucked in so there isn’t that point over the bow.) This is the couture inspiration for the white and gold knock-off dress on the right. This sari silk ready-to-wear copy is available at the upcoming Kerry Taylor auction in London on October 14.

Versailles ’73 – American Runway Revolution documentary

In 1973 New York fashion promoter Eleanor Lambert had an idea for a fashion show to promote American ready-to-wear. The November show was ostensibly created as a fundraiser for the restoration of Versailles but it became an historically important fashion event akin to the debut of Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection of 1947. The extravaganza featured five Paris haute couturiers (Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Marc Bohan for Dior, Hubert Givenchy, and Emmanuel Ungaro) and five of Seventh Avenue’s best designers (Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, and Oscar de la Renta.)

Every moment of this story, from inception to after-party, is excitingly recounted in the smoothly edited documentary ‘Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution’. A huge cast of models, photographers, socialites, and fashion historians, most of whom were there, recall the story from the stereotypical icy Parisian reception of the American contingent through the dramatic melt-downs and infighting that took place right up to curtain time, to the thundering applause from the audience who tossed their programs into the air while screaming Bravo.

The French went first, with a 2 1/2 hour presentation that was heavy and dull with overly-theatrical sets, long musical numbers, and formal fashion parades. This was followed by the American 35 minute presentation that used blank sets, emphasizing the lively presentation of willowy models as they danced across the stage in colourful, easy-fitting clothes. The American presentation won the unanimous acclaim of the guests and media.

American fashion had been gaining international importance since the 1940s, but this event made even Paris recognize the leading role American ready-to-wear and sportswear design now had in the world of fashion. The Versailles show was also instrumental in opening doors to black models that only ten years earlier were absent from mainstream American fashion presentations. The minimalist style of the show and dramatic moves of the models even changed how fashion would be shown for the next 25 years.

The film is at its best when it lets the still stunningly beautiful models recall, almost with disbelief that they were there, the events of the evening. A few grainy clips and photos survive, which help to bring the recollected stories to life, but it is difficult to believe that no complete film of the show was originally made or survives.

The documentary slips a little by using too much footage of experts who weren’t there but pontificate like they were. Also, the film drags towards the end as the message gets repetitive about how important the show was to black history. With a ten or fifteen minute edit, this documentary would be perfect.

Too much vintage?

Mondrian inspired dress by Yves St. Laurent, 1966, sold at Christie's UK for U.S. $46,500

When hunting for vintage sometimes you need luck, sometimes you need bucks, and sometimes it’s best to shop around.

Yesterday’s Christie’s auction of vintage and antique clothing had a few surprising results. Of the 132 lots, 26 were jewellery, which all sold within estimate. However, the balance of the sale was a mix of highs and lows. Half of the remaining lots didn’t sell, while many garments that did sell went above estimate, especially two: a Dior couture dress called ‘Lahore’ from 1948, and rather surprisingly, an Yves St. Laurent Mondrian-inspired wool jersey dress from 1966. So why the mixed results?

The economic downturn means collectors and museums that still have money are only interested in buying the rarest and best items. The Christian Dior ‘Lahore’ gown is probably only one of 3 or 4 ever made. There is also a ‘me too’ aspect of collecting which keeps prices strong on iconic items like the YSL dress because every museum and collector wants one.

Christian Dior's 'Lahore' evening gown, 1948, sold at Christie's for U.S. $98,800

So why all the unsolds? Twenty years ago Christie’s used to have monthly sales of vintage clothing, but this was when the demand for vintage was on its way up and Christie’s was one of the few sources for quality vintage. The market has since changed and there are plenty of sales, websites, and online auction sites that offer competition. A Campbell’s ‘Souper’ dress sold for about $7,000 ten years ago. A couple of days ago at Kerry Taylor’s one sold for about $1,950, but at Christie’s the next day, a lot that included both the Campbell’s ‘Souper’ Dress and a Nixon paper dress failed to make the low estimate of $1,800. The last Souper dress I saw sell online went for about $600.00.

The auction houses also inexplicably lumped their sale dates together: Karen Augusta’s sale was two weeks ago, Christie’s was yesterday, Kerry Taylor’s the day before, and in a few days the next installment of Debbie Reynold’s Hollywood costume collection comes up on the block. Where to place your bids isn’t a problem just for those of us with financial limits. I know several collectors who spend thousands of dollars on auction purchases but they are frustrated by the onslaught of all the auctions at once – especially this close to Christmas.

Dior article in Bespoke

Last spring I was interviewed by Lois Elfman, a writer for Bespoke magazine (the St. Regis hotels in-house publication), regarding the history of Christian Dior. The fall issue of Bespoke, with her Dior article has just debuted and I am happy to say I was accurately quoted! Its an informative piece with some great images of 1950s Dior couture from the Phoenix Art Museum. If you don’t think you will be staying at a St. Regis hotel this fall then you may want to read the whole magazine.