A hot issue in the vintage world this week is Livia Firth and her notable “Green Carpet Challenge”.
Livia Firth is married to Colin Firth and is using her current exposure at awards events to highlight the environmental issues of the modern fashion business. The criteria is complex – her gowns must embrace â€œlabour rights, repurposing, up-cycling, low waste, low carbon, low impact (all the â€˜lowsâ€™), sustainable fibres, alternative fibres and some organic fibresâ€ â€” without sticking out like â€œa sustainable sore thumb.â€ All whilst looking beautiful and appropriate to the grand events she’s attending.
There’s an easy answer to this dilemma – Go Vintage! What could be more glamourous and green than a beautiful vintage couture gown!? The Oscars have a great tradition of this already – from Julia Roberts turning up in vintage Valentino in 2001 to the latest ceremony where Marisa Tomei wore ’50s couture by Charles James and Anne Hathaway wore vintage Valentino too.
For her Oscars gown, Livia collaborated with designer Gary Harvey and chose the 1930s because it’s the era of “The King’s Speech”. Wonderful and appropriate choice – Harvey scoured the vintage clothing shops of London, buying many beautiful gowns (I’m thinking wedding gowns judging by the photos), in fact buying eleven gowns. One of the shops, 360 Degrees Vintage reported that he bought “her best dresses”.
But that’s where it all went awfully wrong. Here’s a pic of the gowns, as Livia and Gary consider their potential. Don’t they look beautiful?
Livia didn’t wear any of these gowns though – instead, her designer chopped them all up and turned them into a patchwork of fabrics, a Frankenstein dress. She was laced into a very un-1930s double corset with a train.
As a fashion historian, I’m appalled at the lack of appreciation for what these dresses were – any bride seeking a vintage gown in good condition knows that ’30s silk gowns are prized and rare. This is the same kind of thinking that brought the destruction of Victorian buildings during the ’50s and Art Deco ones in the ’70s – that old simply means unwanted and redundant, ripe for plundering.
As a seamstress, I’m embarrassed to see how poorly made is the dress these gowns were sacrificed for. The seams bulge and do not sit flat, from the one close up photo I can find, the seams haven’t even been lined up.
What a missed opportunity to highlight how wonderful vintage couture can be when worn on the red carpet! Instead, we have forever lost eleven beautiful and wearable gowns that eleven women could have enjoyed and passed down to their daughters, or museums displayed or that one very privileged woman could wear to many occasions. Lucky Livia to have been in this fortunate position!
From the best of intentions, Livia and her designer show how they feel about historical dress – this sad incident has highlighted for me why we have an uphill battle to get fashion appreciated as a valuable cultural artifact.
As a vintage professional, I do my best to protect and preserve the garments that come to me: they say so much about how our fore-parents lived and the world around them. Increasingly, museums are adding them to their collections and exhibitions of couture sell out.
Like most vintage professionals, I have damaged dresses that are suitable for “upcycling” and recycling, gowns that can not be restored or worn as they are but have potential for other things. Upon request, I make them available for designers and students seeking inspiration or raw materials. If only Livia and Harvey used damaged dresses instead of the beauties they chose – or made from vintage fabric and materials.
If the Livias of the world continue to treat vintage as just raw materials to be used as they wish, we will all be the poorer.