Is it just a pretty dress? Or is there more that we should consider here?
Over the last two weeks a heated debate has broken out on social media about my handling of this dress project. An American content creator of Indian heritage proposed that it ought to be “cancelled”, leading to a storm of controversy.
Some people felt that the upset was unwarranted – it’s just a dress, right? – and those are the people I want to talk to here. What *is* all the fuss about? Why does Nami Sparrow feel hurt, and why is it important for me to pay attention to her?
There are some very strong feelings on both sides, but let’s step back from judgement for a moment and lean into curiosity. What can be done here – not just with this project, but in historical costuming at large? Is it just a question of identifying and ring fencing things we must not make, or have we just not been thinking creatively enough about how we could engage with difficult histories in a more sensitive and educational way? My conversation with art teacher Mary Gilkerson may indicate a way forward that we haven’t yet explored as fully as we perhaps could.
Am I going to make the dress, or just abandon it all right here? Maybe there are more than two options.
NB. As this video went up I watched Cher Thomas’ video again. I realised how much her ideas last year got under my skin, even though I was too overwhelmed and stubborn to respond to her at the time. I’d like to publicly apologise to Cher, acknowledge her influence on some of the things I started to consider in this video, and fwiw, here’s what she said to me so graciously last year.
PS. Full disclosure – this video was directly inspired by an earlier conversation with Nami and two British POC, and filmed before Nami’s video was released (I was just leaving on a trip abroad as it all went down.) It will not address every point brought up, but you get the overall idea of where I stood on this pre-peer pressure, and what possibilities I began to explore. I remain open to feedback.
Shashi Tharoor on whether Britain owes reparations
Lucy Worsley, British History’s Biggest Fibs: The Jewel in the Crown
Instead of the options of make it vs. cancel it, how about a third option? As much as you are teaching historical costume design, you are a video artist teaching about the spiritual experience of the creative journey. Maybe you can embrace this an opportunity to create multiple garments around the theme of the Peacock Dress while the imagery supports new cultural awareness and context about colonization and reparations?
Abandon the idea for an exact replication of the original design and instead reinvent the positive aspects while bringing voice to indigenous history by creating three dresses. The final creation “Reshaping Cultural Narratives through Dress” will a multimedia modern art installation involving video and the dresses for display and education at museums or other venues.
Dress one will be the white fabric mock-up Worth dress design. The video installation would project images onto the dress like a film screen. This would explain why you had to move from your original plan to an alternate one because of the white supremacy symbolism. Video and images would discuss critical race theory as is applies to British colonization and the original design of the dress.
Dresses two and three would pay tribute to art of design but would separate out the peacock embroidery from the Worth dress silhouette. They would represent the symbiosis of current culture with awareness of the past. Dress 2 would be an Asian pattern with peacock embroidery pattern. Dress 3 would be the Worth pattern but with alternate embroidery. You could you a design program to plan it out. They would both be beautiful metallic glowing dresses side by side.
Dress 2 would have the peacock embroidery on it acknowledging return of the power symbol and celebrate Asian female style. There would be a video display next to dress 2 to discuss embroidery artists and garment design. If there is a separate scarf maybe it could incorporate modern materials of beading found in modern dress that would complement the historical embroidery?
Dress 3 would be the Worth garment dress pattern with a repeating scale pattern of metallic embroidery. However, the feathers would get replaced with different symbolism that celebrates the international community you have created through your videos. One option inside the tear-shaped scale pattern design could be words. The embroidery would be a flowing calligraphic outline of the word “dress”. It would not be in English but in different world languages including sign language or braille. The video displayed next to the dress would highlight each spelling of chosen word showing the location on the dress, language, and why it was included. It could also include clips from your different members expressing their word in their language. It would not be the even pattern created by the feathers but an irregular dazzling kaleidoscope.
As for reparations, the art installation would ask anyone moved by the peacock dress creation journey to consider making a donation to a non-profit that supports BIPOC empowerment especially for Asian women. Colonization disfigured local cultures. Patriarchy has created toxic masculinity towards women. The art installation could suggest a couple of non-profits that support Asian women who suffer from disfigurement and/or gender discrimination such as acid survivors:
– Acid Survivors in Bangladesh / https://acidsurvivors.org/about-us/
– Acid Survivors in India / https://aswwf.org/index.php/about/
Another organization would be to support the education of Asian girls. Room to Read works to create literacy in many countries. It has special scholarships for girls since families often invest in a boy’s education. It works in both India and Bangladesh.
I hope you find this a new evolution in your journey as an artist. As for healing your community who disagree about your final decision, consider the wisdom of “Creativity, Inc.” written by a founder of Pixar. In it he discusses how Pixar argued out ideas to make their movies better. People are not bad, but ideas can be bad. By having a group discussion, you get to a better idea. Here are book insights about the creative process:
-If you don’t strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
-It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.
-The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
Cathy, you are one of my favorite bloggers. ,Mary Gilkerson was o e of my favorite painters, teachers and vloggers. I was unable to take one of her classes prior to her passing an was truly uplifted to see you and her speaking about how to handle the Peacock dress. Wonderful discussion. I thank you!
While Laurel’s suggestion might be overwhelming as a blueprint, I do agree with its concept: When encountering humanitarian hurt in your favorite things, it’s an opportunity to learn and ideally engage with the relevant community. While the desire to leave something that’s inevitably hurt multiple parties, including oneself, behind is strong, it does not create growth that helps push understanding and appreciation of these communities. While a sufficient wariness might arise that hopefully makes one more conscientious in the future, it’s the difference between a new root and a flower. Could you imagine the flower of people gathering to create a garment to celebrate rising out of the hardest times, of being able to own their will and artistry without bitterness, and their surprise and delight at your admiration? Not just a white woman commissioning resources for yet another dress, but a friend and colleague creating wearable joy. With that in mind, I wish you safe travels and the best of stories on your new journey.