January 13, 2009

Ruffled Feelings

Azalea Trail MaidsWho owns the hoop skirt? 

In the mid-nineteenth century, the answer would have been more or less every Western woman of means.  From the layers of petticoats used to achieve a bell shape in the early part of the nineteenth century to the patented cage crinolines or "hoop skirts" used to achieve width without as much weight, the silhouette was universal.

Today, the more appropriate question might be, "Who wants to own a hoop skirt?"  Apart from the occasional bride with visions of Princess Diana dancing in her head, such extreme shapes are generally limited to costume dramas, historical reenactments, and high-style goth gatherings. 

A recent dispute related to next week's Inaugural Parade, however, has once again focused attention on the style and raised questions about its cultural meaning and who has the right to define it.  On one side are the Azalea Trail Maids of Mobile, Alabama, a bevy of pastel-clad beauties prepared to represent their state in the parade.  On the other is the head of the Alabama NAACP, who believes that the antebellum costumes are a reminder of slavery and have no place representing modern-day Alabama in the President-elect's historic festivities.

Mary Todd Lincoln in inaugural gownWhatever your position on the Azalea Trail Maids -- the issue is a complex amalgam of race, gender, and red-blue politics, further complicated by the fact that 11 of the 50 Maids are women of color -- it's interesting to witness the transformation of period dress into a contested cultural product.  Like the Confederate battle flag or whistling Dixie, those hoops now carry more weight than originally intended. 

The bottom line:  Barack Obama may be reading about Abraham Lincoln and even basing an inaugural menu around Lincoln's favorite foods, but don't expect Michelle to imitate Mary Todd Lincoln's choice of inaugural gown. 

November 04, 2008

September 01, 2008

Counterfeit Coffee Break 7

OreoCounterfeit Chic doesn't like Oreos.  I never have.  Back in nursery school, I was actually disciplined for NOT eating an Oreo cookie at snacktime -- a recollection that still both amuses and outrages my mother.

Before you go into hypoglycemic shock at my Oreo aversion, however, consider this:  Oreos may be knockoffs.  

In 1912, Nabisco (originally known as the National Biscuit Company), introduced a chocolate, cream-filled sandwich cookie, the Oreo.  But four years earlier, in 1908, Sunshine Biscuits had started baking a popular chocolate, cream-filled sandwich cookie:  Hydrox.  The truth of whether Nabisco copied Sunshine is lost in the crumbled ruins of the past, but it is indisputable that Oreo became the more commercially successful cookie.  The venerable Hydrox brand, now owned by Kellogg's, was eventually retired.   But in response to popular demand and in honor of Hydrox's centennial, Kellogg's has recently brought back a "limited edition" version of the cookie, billed as "America's first creme filled chocolate cookie." 

HydroxHow, you ask, do the two brands compare?

Visually, I can attest that the modern Hydrox is nearly identical to Oreo, but with a somewhat more intricate imprinted pattern.  Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. 

Lacking expertise in the finer points of Hydrox versus Oreo gustation, I enlisted my esteemed colleague and spouse, who grew up on a steady diet of both:  Oreos at home, Hydroxes at grandma's house next door.  According to his memories, confirmed by a taste test in which I most reluctantly participated, Hydrox cookies are crisper, less sweet, and hold up better to immersion in milk.  They also have a less artificial-tasting vanilla cream center and more chocolatey flavor (not difficult, as in my opinion Oreo's evident gastronomic relationship to chocolate is simply that both are brown).  In other words, it's Hydrox by a dunk.

I may never be a fan of marginally chocolate cookies that have a tendency to stick in my molars.  And with New York Fashion Week fast approaching, celery sticks are probably a better idea anyway.  If faced with an officious preschool teacher determined to force-feed me processed sugar, however, I'll reach for a Hydrox -- because even my 3-year-old self was naturally suspicious of baked fakes. 

August 26, 2008

Fire the Speechwriter AND the Stylist


Please tell me that one of the most intelligent and powerful women in America, a woman who aspired to be Commander in Chief, did not just thank her "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits."  In front of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention and a national television audience.  While wearing bright orange.

Barak, if you're elected, please appoint Hillary Clinton to the Supreme Court.  Not only because she'd be a fabulous justice, but also because it's very hard to turn a long black robe into a fashion faux pas. 

Or a style-related pun that sets even Counterfeit Chic's teeth on edge.  


May 23, 2008

Don't Get Hosed!

Among the hardships of wartime is the scarcity of consumer goods.  Members of the "greatest generation" remember the rationing of everything from sugar to shoes -- and, of course, the near-complete unavailability of nylon stockings. 

Today, the fashion flock has decreed bare legs preferable to flesh-toned pantyhose, even in the dead of winter (formal office standards notwithstanding), but the WWII era still valued top-to-toe polish.  Some young women resorted to drawing seams up the back of their bare legs with eyeliner; others searched for stockings on the black market.  As with any illicit trade, however, scams abounded.

This 1940s ad from the New Yorker offered a vision of sheer elegance...

...while the February 1945 Reader's Digest warned against "shifty-eyed, furtive nylon bootleggers" who were likely to be selling either poor-quality stolen goods or rayon masquerading as nylon.  The article concluded on a patriotic note:

After the war there will be nylon hosiery, finer, sheerer, stronger, more beautiful than ever before. Designs for the machines to make it are past the blueprint stage. But until the war is over, the Army and Navy need every pound of nylon. There won't be any for stockings except what is stolen. And there won't be much stolen. So, ladies -- don't be suckers. 

Excellent advice for any age.

Thanks to OrangeCats for posting both the vintage ad and the entire article on Flickr -- and a wonderful Memorial Day weekend to all!

February 11, 2008

Camelot, the Sequel

This evening on live television, Larry King asked the smart and chic Michelle Obama if she'd ever thought about being First Lady.

Michelle Obama channels Jackie Kennedy, the White House years

As if the Jackie Kennedy flip, sheath, and triple strand of pearls didn't say it all. 

Hillary, of course, has no such convenient sartorial model -- but at least her pantsuits have learned to clone themselves.

November 10, 2007

Accept No Substitutes

November isn't exactly an inspirational month.  Chilly rain, grey days, dead leaves -- even Thanksgiving dinner is often marred by those icky little marshmallows scattered over otherwise perfectly respectable sweet potatoes.  (Yes, I can feel the waves of outrage from those of you who wouldn't sit down at the table without the promise of those sticky-sweet globules.  On the other hand, I just got out of having to prepare candied yams, perhaps forever.) 

Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned over the page of my Cavallini & Co. vintage ad-themed calendar to find the following November gem:

Judging from the fact that the Borsalino company has been producing hats since 1857 -- and the distressed look on the monkey's face -- the real thing is "inimitable" indeed.  Interestingly, the official Milanese stamp on the ad is dated 1923, a time of intense debate over creation v. evolution -- and just 2 years before the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in the U.S.  We may share more than 96% of our DNA with chimps, but apparently the style gene is pure human. 

September 03, 2007

Labor Day Reflections

For most Americans and Canadians, myself included, Labor Day is less a holiday than an indication that summer is really over -- and perhaps a chance to squeeze in one last trip to the beach.

Technically, though, it's about giving workers a day off and recognizing the labor movement.  It's thus particularly appropriate that I found myself standing at the site of one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. fashion industry, the Triangle fire, reading a plaque posted by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company factory near Washington Square in New York.  By the time it was extinguished, 146 workers -- mostly young immigrant women -- had died.  Some were asphyxiated, some incinerated, and some lost their lives jumping from the 10-story building in an attempt to escape the flames.  The door that would have allowed many of the victims to escape was apparently locked, in violation of the law, to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. 

It is an interesting footnote to history that the Triangle factory owners were actually design pirates, one of whom is described by author David Von Drehle as "more copyist than creator."  Although the owners were acquitted after a murder trial presided over by a biased judge who believed that he himself had been unfairly held responsible for a tenement fire while he was a city housing official, their company never fully recovered.  By Von Drehle's account this was no great loss to the industry, since only three years after the tragedy "the company was caught sewing counterfeit Consumers' League labels into its garments -- faking the official seal of decent workplace conditions." 

The tragedy's denouement continues the Labor Day theme on a more positive note:  New York and ultimately the nation were galvanized by the horrifying story, and sweeping workplace safety reforms followed.  Today the site of the fire is an NYU building, and the events of 1911 have been largely forgotten in the shadow of more recent tragedies like our own 9/11.  But if you're in New York some Labor Day, walk by the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, and pause for a moment in history.

May 17, 2007

Guilt and Innocence

For a cultural historian, works of fiction are arguably among the best records of the past.  What better place to find descriptions of daily life, from employment to entertainment, food to fashion? 

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's 1921 tale of late-19th-century New York Society and its machinations, gowns of velvet, fur, brocade, muslin, tulle, and especially bridal satin play important supporting roles.  The last of these, in particular, forms an object to be protected from would-be interlopers:  in the case of the bride herself, from a rival to her groom's affections, and in the case of her wedding dress, from (of course) eager copyists.

May Welland's procession into Grace Church to marry Newland Archer is, as custom dictates, to be protected from common eyes by a canvas-draped awning.  The narrow passage, however, proves an obstacle to the bride's broad-minded and physically large grandmother, Catherine, whose wheelchair will not fit between its posts:

The idea of doing away with this awning, and revealing the bride to the mob of dressmakers and newspaper reporters who stood outside fighting to get near the joints of the canvas, exceeded even old Catherine's courage, though for a moment she had weighed the possibility.  "Why, they might take a photograph of my child and put it in the papers!" Mrs. Welland exclaimed when her mother's last plan was hinted to her; and from this unthinkable indecency the clan recoiled with a collective shudder.

How quaint, even for Wharton's day. 

Of course, not every current socialite or celebrity bride wishes to be an easy target for freelance photographers -- especially when they've learned to sell the pictures themselves, or at least arrange for flattering views and venues.  (Melania Trump in Dior by Galliano on the cover of Vogue, perhaps?)

Still, modern copyists don't have to join the scrum of paparazzi in order to get an early look at the latest styles.  That's what the internet is for.

May 04, 2007

Toy Soldiers

In the final months of World War II, a faux U.S. Army unit marched from France, through Luxembourg, and into Germany, accompanied by inflatable rubber tanks and the recorded sounds of airplanes.  Along the way, loose-lipped soldiers and officers "revealed" battle plans.

Political protest, you ask?  Not at all.  Rather, the "Ghost Army" was a counterintelligence unit designed to confuse the enemy with regard to the real Allied strategy.

For 60 years, the history of the United States Army 23rd Headquarters Special Troops remained hidden.  Now a filmmaker, Rick Beyer, has joined the niece of one of the soldiers to produce a documentary and a traveling exhibition about the unit.  Since many of the servicemen were artists, recruited from schools in New York and Philadelphia, the show incorporates the original paintings and drawings that they created en route.  And if you'd like to own a piece of that history, signed prints of some of the original artworks will be auctioned off this Sunday in Hamilton, Massachusetts, to raise money for the film.

But what's all this artifice got to do with fashion, you ask?  Take a look at the stylish caricature of Ghost Army soldier and fashion designer Bill Blass, drawn by fellow recruit Jack Masey, who remembers his late comrade-at-arms "reading Vogue in his foxhole." 

Don't ask, don't tell, indeed. 

January 16, 2007

Pelosi's Power Pearls

Jackie wore fakes that charmed her children -- and that ultimately sold at auction for $211,500.

Barbara Bush wore fakes to hide her neck wrinkles -- courtesy of star costume jewlery designer Kenneth Jay Lane.

Nancy Pelosi sworn in 4 January 2007Now another important woman in Washington has made pearls her signature -- only this time, they're real. 

Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, apparently shares my weakness for South Sea pearls, including the champage strand that she wore with a plum suit for her swearing-in.  It seems that with real power comes real jewelry (even if the ornament of choice for women in politics is soft, round, and usually pale -- but that's an analysis for another day).

Of course, if you're still working your way up to that kind of authority, tips for sourcing pearls of much better price abound -- real or fake.  Then again, authenticity -- like authority -- may be relative

November 16, 2006

Spying in Style

During World War II, propagandists on both sides turned to clothing and textiles to spread their messages.  From a jacket warning, "You never know who's listening," to scarves and posters reminding citizens to "keep it under your hat,"  anti-espionage themes were prominent.

Today, stylish spies like Mata Hari and James Bond are the stuff of history and fiction, but espionage is alive and well in the world of fashion.  In recent weeks I have heard tales from several different indie boutiques in New York, all of which have had experiences with not-so-subtle industry copyists.  The bored-looking man taking photos of dresses, the woman carefully examining the interior construction of a dress and taking notes, the imperious customer snatching up creative designs without regard to size and then paying with a corporate card -- any of these may be corporate spies.  Vendors displaying their newest designs at trade shows are particularly vulnerable, as the brave and passionate Knitgrrl Shannon Okey describes. 

Even the virtual world is crawling with copyists -- or copybots, as the case may be.  Not only do designs from the real world cross the digital divide, but virtual world designs (which sell for real money) are frequently copied.  Marty Schwimmer at The Trademark Blog has a brilliant report on the latest online design thief, a program named CopyBot has been released into SecondLife.  This program, which takes the onscreen form of a character, can copy anything within its proximity -- clothes, hairstyles, you name it.  A character who unsuspectingly approaches the CopyBot may thus find her outfit cloned or, as Marty puts it, "an avatar dress shop becomes as vulnerable to counterfeiting as any commercial enterprise."  Most interesting of all, it's been captured on video, morphing into various avatars as it approaches them -- the ultimate illicit intelligence-gathering, and a fascinating must-see

A creator may try to keep her newest ideas secret, at least long enough to sell her work or fashion an original avatar.  But it's tough to "keep it under your hat" when the hat itself is the target.   

October 15, 2006

Soft Soaped

Amid debates over too-skinny models and over-styled celebrities, Dove soap's ad "Campaign for Real Beauty" attempts to differentiate itself by appealing to everyday beauties -- i.e. the rest of us.

First there were the ordinary size and shape models on billboards.  Now, Dove is pulling back the curtain on the artifice of the beauty industry with a short video that shows an average woman transformed into an ad via makeup artists, hair stylists, and Photoshop.  (In other words, this is the type of preparation and retouching that Counterfeit Chic discussed in March come to life.)  Here are before and after shots from the Dove video (HT:  BoingBoing):

Dove's ultimate goal, of course, is to sell more soap.  But is the objective of its "self-esteem fund" to make women and girls appreciate themselves more without excessive dieting and primping -- or simply to lower expectations for soap, which won't work any great transformations?  Perhaps both.

Realistically, though, when have humans ever settled for mere "natural" beauty?  Think back to Cleopatra's kohl-lined eyes, or even earlier to the 100,000-year-old shell beads that some scientists have hailed as the earliest evidence of symbolic thought.  Traces of ochre, an iron oxide pigment, are still evident on some prehistoric beads -- possibly makeup rubbed off of the skin of the person who wore them.  In the words of Professor Clive Gamble, "It's all about identity -- about changing the way you look.  I'm sure that clothing came along in a big way at the same time.  And then there's all that ochre.  These people were interested in changing their colour." 

A little self-esteem, and a simple soap-and-water toilette, are a relaxed corrective to the Photoshoped fakery of glossy magazines.  But if we've been primping for 100,000 years, we're not likely to stop on Dove's video say-so.  Indeed, our elaborate visual tricks may be as authentically human as our own skin. 

August 31, 2006

Counterfeit Coffee Break 3

Ah, Friday!  Time for another counterfeit coffee break -- this time, from 1921.  The message?  "Avoid imitations."

Cafe Martin print (1921)

Or, for those who prefer their caffeine in a slightly sweeter form (1895):

Chocolat Menier poster magnet (1895)

It would appear that the "admirers" of Starbucks are following a long tradition

August 29, 2006

Fake Film Fest

In A New Kind of Love (1963)probably Paul Newman's worst film ever, his real-life wife Joanne Woodward plays a notorious fashion design pirate with a photographic memory. After an excruciating couple of hours, she forgettably finds love in Paris -- but her scenes as a knockoff artist are definitely cultural artifacts worth viewing!


The idea for Woodward's knockoff artist character was presumably ripped right from the headlines, since in the late 1950s and early 1960s the fashion industry was engaged in one of its periodic quests for legislative protection. 

August 04, 2006

An Old-Fashioned Question

In my childhood bedroom, on one of many shelves full of books, rests a copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott, better known as the author of Little Women.  This 1870 novel contains the passage below, in which a group of young women gathers to engage in some charitable sewing and not-so-charitable chatter.  In retrospect, this may have been my first exposure to the knockoff question:

"Hush! Trix has the floor."

"If they spent their wages properly, I should n't mind so much, but they think they must be as fine as anybody, and dress so well that it is hard to tell mistress from maid. Why our cook got a bonnet just like mine (the materials were cheaper, but the effect was the same), and had the impertinence to wear it before my face. I forbid it, and she left, of course, which made papa so cross he would n't give me the camel's hair shawl he promised this year."

"It 's perfectly shameful!" said Miss Perkins, as Trix paused out of breath. "Servants ought to be made to dress like servants, as they do abroad; then we should have no more trouble," observed Miss Perkins, who had just made the grand tour, and had brought home a French maid.

"Perky don't practise as she preaches," whispered Belle to Polly, as Miss P. became absorbed in the chat of her other neighbors. "She pays her chamber girl with old finery; and the other day, when Betsey was out parading in her missis's cast-off purple plush suit, Mr. Curtis thought she was mademoiselle, and bowed to her. He is as blind as a bat, but recognized the dress, and pulled off his hat to it in the most elegant style. Perky adores him, and was mad enough to beat Betsey when she told the story and giggled over it. Betsey is quite as stylish and ever so much prettier than Perky, and she knows it, which is an aggravation."

Alcott, who spent part of her childhood in a utopian social community and became a noted abolitionist and feminist, obviously enjoyed holding social pretensions up to ridicule.  These few paragraphs alone could support an entire lecture:  why would a cook allegedly imitate the style of her employer's daughter?  how did advances in textile production make this possible?  why were European household staff more likely to wear distinctive uniforms than their American counterparts?  what is the role of clothing in constructing social status?

Today, of course, the mistress would be as likely to imitate the maid as vice versa -- fashion trends trickle up from the street as often as down from the haute couture.  In addition, the perspective of the milliner who created the original bonnet might come into play (not that many of us still wear hats on a daily basis, or have chambermaids, for that matter). 

Still, I have to smile when I think about our great-grandmothers gossiping about knockoffs.

June 15, 2006

Museum-Quality Fakes

Counterfeit Chic has previously pondered why it is that museums and museum-goers prefer the display of original works over copies, particularly when the vast majority of viewers can't tell the difference. 

Apparently the Nassau County Art Museum has no such existential concerns.

WWD reports that a new exhibition, "Art and Fashion:  From Marie Antoinette to Jacqueline Kennedy," required a degree of curatorial resourcefulness:

Unable to borrow any of Kennedy's dresses from her White House years from the Smithsonian Institution, the NCMA turned to local students to re-create her signature look, said director Constance Schwartz. Fashion students at Nassau Community College designed the dresses for the exhibition.

The museum also posthumously honored one of Jackie's favorite designers, Oleg Cassini, with a lifetime achievement award.  Which is only appropriate, given that he was accused of making knockoffs of European designs for Jackie.

In other words, the museum may have commissioned copies of copies for the display.  Maybe the gift shop carries originals?

May 30, 2006

Counterfeit Antique Chic

If you were "as rich as Croesus," would you wear costume jewelry?

Apparently the original King Croesus preferred the real thing -- and would probably not have been pleased that an undisclosed number of objects representing his 6th century BCE reign have been stolen from a Turkish museum and replaced with fakes.  Among the missing items from the collection, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned to Turkey in 1993, is the winged seahorse broach at left. 

Counterfeit Chic asks, "What's the big deal?"  Or, to put it somewhat more eloquently, why does it matter whether an artifact under glass in a museum is the real thing or a virtually identical copy? 

Archaeologists or historians will plausibly argue that only the real thing -- whatever that thing happens to be -- can truly yield information about ancient creative techniques or be subjected to scientific tests to determine age, composition, etc.  But for most of us, an expert replica is equally informative.  Why, then, would we make a special trip to see an historic object but hardly glance at the version in the museum shop?

Alexander Stille takes on this question in his book, The Future of the Past, describing the common Chinese practice of making and displaying museum-quality copies of artifacts -- and the culture clashes that can ensue when Western curators refuse to accept these substitutes in traveling exhibits. 

The concept of "authenticity" is complex, evolving, and culturally determined.  For many of us, there is an intuitive preference for an original over a copy, even when we are objectively unable to tell the difference.  In the case of the golden broach, there is a qualitative difference between real gold and gold-colored metal, but in a museum display the properties of gold versus a substitute are irrelevant. 

At the end of the day, it is often the item's totemic value that matters -- the little winged seahorse has touched history, perhaps even adorned the body of a celebrated figure from the past.  Turkey wanted it back from the Met, and the Usak Archaeological Museum wants it back now, for much the same reason that people bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the faux pearls previously owned by Jackie Kennedy. 

Reality may be relative, but it carries a high price.

May 29, 2006

A Girl's Best Friend (or Faux)

Caution:  Bad lawyer joke ahead.

Q.  What's the difference between a lawyer and a pit bull?

A.  Jewelry.

OK, back to the intellectual property & jewelry issue.  If copyright law is supposed to protect creative works, shouldn't fine jewelry and costume jewelry receive the same treatment?

Not so fast.  The answer is yes -- but it took a couple of lawsuits by storied costume jewelry manufactuers in the 1950s to make that clear.  In Trifari, Krussman & Fishel, Inc. v. Charel Co., 134 F. Supp. 551 (S.D.N.Y 1955), the defendant argued that the copied Trifari pieces were mere "junk jewelry" and not subject to copyright.  The court disagreed with the contention that costume jewelry could not be copyrighted, citing the applicable regulation listing "artistic jewelry" among protectable "works of art."  The opinion continued:

Costume jewelry may express the artistic conception of its 'author' no less than a painting or a statute....  Simply because it is a commonplace fashion accessory, not an expression of 'pure' or 'fine' art does not preclude a finding that plaintiff's copyrighted article is a 'work of art' within the meaning and intendment of the Act.

Although the court focused on the copyrightability of costume jewelry generally, rather than on the distinction between precious gems and paste suggested by the defendant, this opinion was the first to clarify the status of costume jewelry under U.S. law.  A few years later, another court reached the same conclusion in Boucher v. Du Boyes, Inc., 253 F.2d 948 (1958).  Faux jewelry may be more democratic than its "real" counterpart, but it is no less an art form.

In fact, while costume or travel jewelry often imitates more expensive pieces, sometimes the tables are turned.  In his artistic memoir, Faking It, Kenneth Jay Lane offers several anecdotes about wealthy admirers of his costume jewelry who have had it copied -- in precious stones.  Apparently no legal action ensued.

May 26, 2006

A Girl's Best Friend

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend -- but when the girl is also a jewelry designer, copyright law runs  a close second.

A recent raid on several companies in New York's Diamond District resulted in the seizure of over 100 items alleged to be "substantially similar" to designs by Judith Ripka.

Lucky for Judith that she doesn't design clothes.  Why?  Because while the Copyright Office considers clothing to useful and thus excluded from copyright protection, jewelry is more like a sculpture or work of art -- and therefore copyrightable.  (No need to slap on a logo and turn to trademark law for protection, like clothing or handbag designers do.)

In the landmark case of Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201 (1954), the Supreme Court traced this protection for 3-D works of art, including sculpture, back to 1870.  Later Copyright Office regulations cited by the Court specifically included "works of artistic craftsmanship, in so far as their form but not their mechanical or utilitarian aspects are concerned, such as artistic jewelry...." (emphasis added). 

Of course, adding an adjective like "artistic" to describe copyrightable jewelry was an open invitation to argue about what is considered artistic and what isn't (with some interesting social class implications along the way) -- but that's a post for another day. 

In the meantime, enjoy your -- or Judith Ripka's -- copyright-protected bling!

March 31, 2006

Jackie's Knockoff Artist?

Cassini, A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White HouseWhen American designer Oleg Cassini passed away on March 17, reams of obituaries celebrated his transformation of Jackie Kennedy into a style icon during her term as First Lady, his long-term success in the fashion business, and the fabled charm that captivated a series of well-known leading ladies. 

Few papers, however, mentioned longstanding charges that he was less the creator of Jackie's public image and more her house knockoff artist.  In a 2002 review of an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for example, the Washington Post challenges the Jackie myth:

In her civilian days, if she hadn't worn outfits of any great historical significance, at least she favored the great Parisian names -- Chanel, Balenciaga, Givenchy -- that had helped shape fashion history.  But after Nixon manages to raise a fuss about the new first lady's Francophilic tastes and unions pressured Jack to buy at home, Jackie had to downplay her preference for these important fashion houses.  With occasional exceptions, when she appeared in public she had her favorite French originals copied by U.S. makers, such as Hollywood designer Oleg Cassini, a Kennedy family friend, or New York knockoff queens Nona Park and Sophie Shonnard.  (On the occasions that she still wore French originals, she seems sometimes to have had their telltale labels snipped off first.)

Perhaps Cassini was one of those on fellow designer Norman Norell's mind in 1965 when he said, "If only American designers would create their own designs, we'd be so strong. We'd influence the world. I want to scold American designers, and myself included."

Naturally, as a designer and a gentleman, Cassini denied any such charges regarding the First Lady's regalia -- and with both parties now presumably wearing white robes and wings, we may never know for sure.  But originals or copies, at least the costumes of Camelot were "made in U.S.A." 

March 29, 2006

Legislation is "In" for Spring

As some of you know, Counterfeit Chic (or rather, the mild mannered professor writing it) has been quite busy with the real world of late.  An imminent legislative proposal in one's area of expertise has a way of demanding attention far beyond the usual academic debates -- and with a new bill on the intellectual property protection of fashion design about to be introduced in Congress, I feel a little bit like a scholar who was quietly studying ancient Aramaic and looked up to find Mel Gibson at the door.  (Of course, discussing this issue with people immersed in it is nothing but a pleasure.) 

As the latest battle lines are drawn -- Harper's Bazaar's Anticounterfeiting Summit v. Marie Claire's "Splurge or Steal?" feature, young designers v. established copyists, and almost everyone v. Urban Outfitters -- I have a strange sense of déjà vu.

In 1930, Mrs. Condé Nast, wife of the magazine magnate, sent the New York Evening Telegram a letter in which she stated:

The women who pay several hundred dollars for original gowns have the right to expect that their gowns will not appear on the $10.75 racks in the stores the next week.

Sound like a familiar issue?

Tomorrow, the following will appear in the New York Times:

"Piracy in fashion is rampant," [designer  Narciso] Rodriguez said, recalling a lunch meeting he had with senators last July, when he held up one of his $1,500 designs next to a newspaper advertisement for a nearly identical dress at Macy's, selling for $199.

The prices may have changed, but the story remains the same.  In every generation for the past century, fashion designers have protested their lack of protection under American law -- and little has changed.  Why?  And is anything different this time? 

My short answer is that U.S. culture, history, and politics may finally have developed a new fashion sense.  Stay tuned for more about the past, present, and future of this debate.

In the meantime, take a look at the illustrations offered by the Times (Urban Outfitters at $48 (top); Bottega Veneta at $1,680).  And yes, I can personally confirm seeing both in stores over the past month. 


March 23, 2006

Counterfeit Chick Flicks

In the forthcoming movie "Slammer," Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a publicist sent to prison -- mistakenly, of course -- for taking designer swag meant for clients and passing it on to knockoff artists intent on mass production.  Musical comedy ensues.

Can't wait for the release?  Well, even counterfeiters can't get the DVDs on the streets before filming, but SJP is hardly the first to encounter knockoffs on the big screen.  In the 1963 movie "A New Kind of Love," Joanne Woodward works for a knockoff guy who decides to take his staff to Paris for "inspiration."  She meets Paul Newman on the way, and you can predict the rest. 

And if you find a recording of the original Broadway play "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," you'll have to laugh at the song "Paris Original."  In it, the secretary trying to land the up-and-coming young exec splurges on an "irresistible" and ostensibly one-of-a-kind designer creation, only to see every other woman who walks in wearing the same dress.  Unfortunately, the song was cut from the 1967 movie version. 

Roll 'em!


March 17, 2006

Mark o' the Irish

University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish trademarkThinking about honoring your Celtic heritage -- or perhaps just borrowing a bit of the luck o' the Irish -- by incorporating a shamrock into your trademarks or designs?  Think again, at least if you plan to market your goods in Ireland. 

According to the Irish Patents Office:

Any person who wishes to obtain registration of a trade mark containing a State emblem (harp, shamrock) or to use a State emblem in connection with any business must first obtain consent from the Minister.

Just a simple bit of green tape?  Not exactly.  The guidelines go on to state, "Authorisation to use the shamrock is restricted to goods or services of Irish origin." 

A thought for the fashion buffs out there:  Would British designer Charles James and his famous 1953 "four-leaf clover gown" have been affected by this rule, had it been in force?  Presumably the law wouldn't have reached that far, since only the outline of the hem formed a shamrock -- and, besides, his own rather nondescript name for the gown was "Abstract."

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

March 16, 2006

That's SO 5,000 Years Ago

Archaeologists in Iran have uncovered evidence of a sophisticated fashion industry dating back approximately five milllennia.  Not only have they excavated an apparent textile factory, but also dresses, jewelry, makeup, and clay stamps with family insignia apparently used to mark personal items.  (Proto-monograms, anyone?)  The scientists further suggest that the state-of-the-art textiles, used to create draped garments similar to saris, allowed both men and women "to wear trend-setting, colorful, designed pieces, which may have influenced the clothing styles of other regions." 

While a contemporary Zoroastrian text includes a a word for "artisan" that meant "he or she who makes good weaving," neither the word for "knock-off artist" nor the ancient H&M have yet been discovered. 

February 27, 2006

L'Ultima Cena della Moda

The Ultimate Dinner Party?  Creative blogger/designer Verbal Croquis has turned us all into hosts and hostesses for this week's Carnivale of Couture, courtesy of The Manolo

With the perhaps perverse idea of bringing together couture originals and copyists, Counterfeit Chic requests the honor of the following presences:

Coco Chanel, the site's PS/AA and a woman with a great deal to say on the subject of copying, most of it favorable.  But what would Mademoiselle think of

Karl Lagerfeld, who has risen to fame and been hailed as a genius while copying her work for the house of Chanel?  Would she be flattered, or treat him like a dull schoolboy?  Of course, the Kaiser doesn't only copy Coco.  He joins

Fida Naamneh, an Israeli Arab designer who deliberately embroidered three of the 99 names of Allah onto the low-cut dress that was her final project in college.  (Hat tip to Blingdom of God.)  Her choice of decoration was intentional, whereas Karl's use of Qur'anic verses on a bustier was apparently accidental.  Appropriation of cultural property can be volatile, however; both designers aroused the ire of followers of

The Prophet Mohammed.  While his writing long predated copyright claims, he might have a few things to say about its use on women's clothing.  In fact, we'd like to ask him a few questions about his actual words and their subsequent influence on women's dress in general.  (No group pictures, we promise.)

Having crossed into the surreal, we'd enjoy the guidance of artist Salvador Dali, a frequent collaborator in the 1930s couture creations of

Elsa Schiaparelli.  Her famous lobster dress and shoe hat were the result of such art-into-fashion experiments, which eschewed the minimalism of her archrival Coco Chanel.  Indeed, Schiap's response to Chanel's praise of copying (and her empire of faux bijoux) is apparent in the belief that "fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt." 

Let the games begin!  Dinner is served.  And if the presence of the prophet doesn't promote at least temporary peace between Schiap (irresistable force) and Coco (immovable object), this may indeed be Fashion's Last Supper. 

P.S.  Counterfeit Chic was fascinated by the French and Italian legal responses to another Ultimate Dinner Party of sorts (above), presented last year by the French fashion house Girbaud.  Presumably this Carnivale will be somewhat less controversial.

February 24, 2006

The Man of ... Silk?

In honor of the first New York Comic-Con this weekend, here's a look back at Superman's triumph over one of Metropolis' most nefarious villains -- The Dude!  Note the measuring tape whip, the white tie & tails, the phalanx of unhappy women in lookalike dresses....

Superman #23

Never heard of The Dude?  Well, neither had Superman -- until the summer of 1943, when Clark Kent was forced to accompany Lois Lane on a shopping expedition.  She bought an expensive, one-of-a-kind dress (French, of course), only to see a cheap imitation in a dress shop in a "down-and-out neighborhood."  Shocked, Miss Lane demanded her money back -- and mustered both her feminine outrage and her journalistic instincts to expose the knockoff racket.  Naturally, she endangered herself in the process, requiring Superman to come on the scene, avoid a not-so-clever trap, and vanquish The Dude. 

The story has it all -- our favorite gendered industry (and its seedy side), class issues, French styles, creativity, copying, a smart woman on the case....  But if the Man of Steel was uncomfortable in a women's clothing store, why was Jerry Siegel, one of the original creators of Superman and the author of "Fashions in Crime!" so concerned? 

Well, knockoffs were perhaps an even more widely discussed issue back then than today.  (In the comic, after Lois Lane publishes her original story, "Feminine readers flock to the Daily Planet in droves.")  And Siegel's mind was on copyright issues.  He was already uncomfortably aware that he and his partner, Joe Shuster, has signed away the rights to Superman for a song; moreover, DC comics was engaged in a series of ongoing legal battles, claiming that other companies' superheroes infringed on Superman.  So perhaps he had some sympathy for upscale fashion designers, or at least the women who wore them.

The real question is why a guy in tights and a cape felt the need to deny an interest in fashion.

February 22, 2006

Copying for Christ

Of late the current pope's sartorial splendor has been under scrutiny.  The brilliant and often irreverent Blingdom of God goes one step further, suggesting that Benedict XVI follow in the footsteps of his namesake, Benedict XV, who removed the gems from a storied papal tiara, replaced them with glass, and sold the originals to raise money for WWI veterans.

Sacred fakery or faux pas?  From a moral standpoint, surely the former -- after all, the real crowns are supposed to be waiting in heaven.  (See 1 Corinthians 9:25, 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 2 Timothy 4:8, James 1:12, 1 Peter 5:4, Revelation 2:10 ....)

February 21, 2006

Forecasting the Future, Preserving the Past

Beauty may be eternal, but fashion is an ephemeral medium -- "in" today, "out" tomorrow.  Yesterday's old clothes, however, may be tomorrow's "vintage" apparel or design "inspiration."  But how to preserve this legacy?

Today's International Herald Tribune reports that Italian fashion houses are taking matters into their own hands.  While Italy is a world leader in other forms of historic preservation, neither government interest nor funding extends to its most stylish patrimony.  In the absence of state-sanctioned fashion museums (as in France) or an established system of tax write-offs (as in the U.S.), companies like Pucci, Armani, and Fendi are investing in museum-quality storage facilities and archival record-keeping. 

The IHT quotes Laudomia Pucci, daughter of exuberant textile and clothing designer Emilio Pucci, on the value of fashion archives:

"They are such an inspiration for young designers," says Pucci.  "They look at fabrics, proportions, sewing techniques from the past."

Pucci does not intend to throw open the doors of the past to mere knockoff artists, though:

That is not to say, however, that [the archives] are intended to be copied.  "They are a bouncing board for tomorrow," she clarifies.

To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton who paraphrased John of Salisbury who paraphrased Bernard of Chartres (who may have been paraphrasing someone else), "We are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants."  Or at least on fabulous platform heels.

Pucci wedge, Lune pink, Spring 2006

February 16, 2006

Countercultural Copying

Ever wonder how Argentine-turned-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara ended up as a T-shirt? 

Check out the exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York (through February 26).  Not only are there Che T-shirts from around the world, but also additional evidence of the comandante's commercial appeal, ranging from cigarette lighters to Cherry Guevara ice cream.  (Hello, Ben & Jerry's?)

Photographer Alberto Korda snapped the original shot, "Guerrillero Heroico," in Cuba in 1960, but failed to pay much attention to the copyright.  He apparently never received any royalties for use of the images, but did win at least one out-of-court settlement against an advertiser and claimed to be against the commercial exploitation of the image.  Presumably Che didn't receive any compensation either, even assuming that would have been consistent with his revolutionary Marxist politics.  Today Che's face is a steady source of revenue in Cuba, where T-shirt vendors greet arriving tourists at the airport. 

The specific message of the image, however, has decreased in inverse proportion to its popularity.  Viva la revolucion? Power to the people?  Overthrow the capitalist pigs?  Or just a dramatic, vaguely rebellious image?  You decide.

And meanwhile, take a look at the conservative competition.

January 30, 2006

The State of the Fashion Union: E Pluribus Plures

My fellow fashionisti,

A century ago, 1st Wave Feminism gave women the right to vote -- and the ability to breathe and move unrestricted by corsets and trailing skirts.  Designers like Counterfeit Chic's Patron Saint/Avenging Angel Coco Chanel took pride (and profit) in setting women free.

Michael Roberts,

In the latter half of the 20th century, 2nd Wave Feminism dramatically expanded our opportunities to make career and lifestyle choices -- and our ability to leave the house without a uniform of elaborately coifed hair, lacquered faces, restrictive "foundation garments," hats, and gloves.  OK, we also veered from one decade of shapeless, earth-toned, artsy-craftsy outfits to another decade of power suits with giant shoulders and floppy bow ties based on men's suits.  But the thought was there -- witness the recent rebirth of Diane von Furstenberg's 1972 woman-on-the-go wrap dress.

Today, a 3rd Wave is gathering momentum, carrying with it a commitment to individual creativity and playful paradox:

  • A boyfriend one week and a girlfriend the next?  No problem. 
  • Ivy League education for both future female CEOs and stay-at-home moms?  Check.
  • A career as a feminist ecdysiast?  Sure.
  • Piety and piercings?  Pourquois pas?
  • Chanel jackets with jeans, or flip-flops with evening gowns?  Naturally.
  • Smart women who love fashion (even while we thank our foremothers for releasing us from rigid conformity)?  Absolutely.  You've already met the reigning queens of this Carnivale, Fashion Tribes and Almost Girl, and many, many more blogistas, academics, journalists, fashion designers, and fabulous women in general, not to mention our presumably male fellow-travelers (on the internet, who knows?). 

In the realm of fashion health, we are developing a cure for repetitive dress disorder.  In the workplace, sports bonding is giving way to shoe bonding.  Around the globe, even women still under burkas are back at the beauty salon.  In short, we're experiencing

The Brave & the Bold #63, December 1965/January 1966

(One correction:  With all due respect to the graphic artists who gave us the Revolt of the Super-Chicks, it's not about dressing for men.  Modern women know that these super-sistas are doin' it for themselves.)

So go forth, create, contradict, and don't feel compelled to copy.  God bless the Fashion Union, and good night!

January 08, 2006

Times Past

Each week in the New York Times Sunday Styles section, Bill Cunningham offers a look at fashion "On the Street."  Today it seems that women are walking out of 17th-century Spanish and 19th-century Japanese portraits onto catwalks and sidewalks, each wearing enough billowing silk to create a small (albeit luxurious) tent or a hot air balloon.  (With these options available and Heidi Klum showing off her lovely rounded figure on Project Runway, it looks like  great season to be pregnant!)

Cunningham traces modern appearances of this infanta silhouette back to Balenciaga in 1957 -- and offers a belated slap on the wrist to Givenchy for doing versions of his own a mere six months later.  He also shows recent versions by Marc Jacobs and Olivier Theyskens of Rochas, as well as the modernized sacks and chemises offered by Balenciaga's current designer, Nicolas Ghesquiere.

Balenciaga Spring 20006

Which leads me to several questions:  is copying the historic designs of the founder of your own house more acceptable than borrowing the style vocabulary of another designer, especially your contemporary?   Is perpetuation of the house DNA really creativity, or just good brand management?  And why exactly do so many people call Karl Lagerfeld's work for Chanel "genius" when so much is really the work of Mademoiselle herself -- is it just his rejuvenation of the brand and sense of the zeitgeist? 

December 26, 2005

Year in Review I: Katrina and Counterfeits

Whether the culprit was global warming, mysterious astrological conjunctions, or sheer coincidence, 2005 was a bad year for water.  We began in the wake of a tsunami in the Indian Ocean and now end with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast -- events which the radiator pipes in my century-old landmark building felt compelled to imitate on a smaller scale, but that's another story. 

Our tale is one of U.S. Customs and counterfeits, laws and largesse.  It seems that the Bush Administration, while accused of ignoring the good citizens of New Orleans and surrounding areas, was in fact attempting to provide for their needs -- with counterfeit goods.  Warehouses full of fake trademarked items were emptied and the infringing contents sent to shelters, where the victims of Katrina were offered knockoff clothing, bedding, and even toys.  The Legal Times was kind enough to print my editorial on this curious federal strategy of seizing with one hand and redistributing with the other.  For the full text, please click here.

December 23, 2005

Pearls of Great Price

In 1917 Pierre Cartier purchased a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York from financier Morton Plant.  The price?  $100 plus a string of pearls coveted by Mrs. Plant and valued at $1 million.

In 1957 the same necklace was sold at auction for a mere $151,000.  The mansion still serves the Cartier jewelry company's flagship in New York, and were it ever to be sold, its value would be far greater than the 1917 figure.

The reason for the pearls' decline in value?  The scientific development of extraordinary knockoffs.

In the 1890s, several Japanese scientists were competing to develop a method of inducing oysters to produce round pearls.  Kokichi Mikimoto (yes, also a familiar name today on Fifth Avenue and elsewhere) was among these scientists.  By the 1920s, Mikimoto became the first to develop a commercially successful method of culturing pearls.  Despite an initial outcry against the "fake" pearls -- presumably from those lucky enough to own them -- the extreme scarcity of pearls harvested from coastal waters quickly made cultured pearls the industry standard.  Women everywhere could aspire to own what only a few decades before had been a means of displaying great wealth or royal status.

Kokichi Mikimoto

Today, it is a safe assumption that "pearls" offered for sale are cultured rather than natural.  And modern faux pearls have never seen the inside of an oyster. 

So, are those pearls in your Christmas stocking real?  It depends on who's asking -- and during which decade.

December 16, 2005

Introducing our Patron Saint/Avenging Angel

Counterfeit Chic's Patron Saint/Avenging Angel, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, probably didn't invent the "little black dress" -- but she was famous for popularizing it and inspiring innumerable imitations.  Her response?

Fashion should slip out of your hands.  The very idea of protecting the seasonal arts is childish.  One should not bother to protect that which dies the minute it is born.


Today, her eponymous house -- or at least its counsel -- is a bit less forgiving.  In recent ads, Chanel, Inc., reminded fashion editors and advertisers that "even if we are flattered by such tributes to our fame as 'Chanel-issme, Chanel-ed, Chanels and Chanel-ized', PLEASE DON'T.  Our lawyers positively detest them."

This legally offended/artistically flattered dichotomy has been echoed by designers from Marc Jacobs to As Four.  So which is it?  How come the lawyers always get blamed?  And what would Mademoiselle herself think?  If anyone is channeling Chanel, please let me know!