The Peacock Dress: a tale of white women’s privilege and tears.

24 Sep

Or what RWA’s racism and discrimination look like in another community.

White woman standing, wearing a heavily embroidered, shoulder-baring dress, with the train spread forward to her left.
Portrait of Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon, Vicereine of India, wearing the Peacock Dress and her crown, by William Logsdail.

(see update at the bottom) (and a second update below that)

Quick and dirty background:

The Delhi Durbar were three events held in 1877, 1903 and 1911, to commemorate the coronation of British monarchs as emperors over India. They were also opportunities to showcase the obscene amount of wealth the British conquerors were extracting from the subcontinent.

The original Peacock Dress by Worth was made in the early 1900s for Lady Curzon, the Vicereine of India, for the coronation ball at the 1903 Delhi Durbar, and is currently preserved at Kedleston Hall in the UK.

The dress was assembled in Paris, by Jean-Phillippe Worth (son of the original Worth), from panels of chiffon that had been embroidered in India, then shipped back to Delhi in time for the event.

In short, the Peacock Dress is a symbol of British exploitation of India’s resources and of the Indian people’s talents and labor.

Fast forward a hundred years.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, a white woman from England, Cathy Hay, fell in love with the original gown and started working on recreating it for herself–to wear, not as an object of study–, documenting her work in her blog. She studied zardozi, the gold wire embroidery technique used by the original Indian artists, and worked on and off on the project for a few years. In 2011, she fundraised to build an orphanage in Haiti, using the completion of the project as incentive for donors, à la charity run: ¨you donate to this cause, I’ll do this insane thing¨1.

At one point, she abandoned the project because the embroidery work itself is incredibly time-consuming and hard on the hands. Then, somewhere in the late-2010s, she met another white woman, American Bernadette Banner, a “youtube sensation/influencer” in the (at the time) nascent CosTube community.

Bernadette had been following Cathy’s progress from afar, and encouraged the latter to press on with the project, by finding ways to get the panels embroidered in India, by Indian artists; by posting a promotional video of the project in her own channel in early 2020 (over a million followers at the time), and by finding those Indian artists through her own connections.2

For the past 20 months, Cathy Hay has been documenting the progress of the recreation in her YouTube channel3. During that time, she has received unqualified support by the mostly-white community of CosTubers there, who have, during this period, performed inclusivity through online panels and events with guests of color, but engaged in zero actual reflection of their own racism.

Meanwhile, CosTubers of color have been using their own, far smaller platforms, to talk about how problematic the project is, given what the dress was created to commemorate (British rule over India!), let alone outsourcing the hard part of the “impossible dream project”, for cheap, to the same people whose exploitation was celebrated at the original event, and whose current exploitation was engineered by British colonization of the subcontinent (see Cher Thomas’s July 2020 video here).

Which brings us to September 19 2021. Indian American CosTuber Nami Sparrow posted this video to her (quite small) channel:

Please note: there’s a lot of emotional labor in this video. If you want to support Nami, she has a ko-fi link in the description and in her profile.

And we come now to the point made in the title of this post.

I have seen at least three prominent white women CosTubers (including Bernadette Banner), post comments to Nami’s video. Bernadette’s comment is an apology; she deleted her promotional video, and is apparently otherwise pretending she was never involved with the project. The others have done nothing beyond posting a comment under Nami’s video. Their platforms range from a million point six subscribers (in YouTube alone), to the mid-60 thousands. Nami’s channel has just over thirteen hundred subscribers.

Not one of those women has, five days later (at the time of publishing), posted anything about the topic or boosted Nami’s video to their own YouTube audiences. Not even a link to Nami’s video in their community tabs.

What I have seen is other (mostly white women) CosTubers being angry at Nami for asking Cathy to drop this exploitation porn project. “Why”, they say, “if a well-off white British woman is not allowed to hire out the making of *the* key part of her ~dream dress~ project to a former British colony, still impoverished as a consequence of imperialist exploitation, that means that no historical costume recreation is safe! Cancel culture! The end of the world!”

Which, you will notice, is not at all what Nami says; it’s not at all what Cher Thomas said; and not *at all* what any CosTuber of color has said or is calling for. But it’s perfect for rallying white women’s fragility through white women’s tears, and erase the very legitimate issues raised by people of color, not just about this one project, but about the racism, elitism, and exclusionary nature of white CosTube.

Which is exactly the kind of racist dynamic seen in a bigger scale as RWA imploded last year4, which in turn was a micro of the U.S.A.’s (and the UK’s, and Europe’s, and the whole fucking world’s), ongoing white supremacy crisis.

* * * * *

1 Problematic alert the first! Cathy raised money, part of which she used to travel with a group of those donors to Haiti, where by all accounts they engaged in charity-tourism, meaning: rather than giving the money to a local organization on the ground, they “helped”. Cathy herself got sunstroke on the first day, and spent the rest of the trip in her air conditioned hotel room.

2 Problematic alert the second! Bernadette has since deleted her videos and other content where she did all this, apparently following a falling out with Cathy. I do not know the particulars. Condensed timeline can be found here.

3 In a manner of speaking; seems to me that she mostly uses the project as a background to her “motivational” stuff. (No, I am most definitely not a fan). You can see part of what I mean in this 2016 video, and a record of Bernadette’s involvement in the project here. Some reddit discussion on Cathy Hay’s shady business practices here, here, and here.

4 You can see a condensed timeline of that particular fuckery at Claire Ryan’s blog here; she continued updating with further developments and linkage for a few weeks. Claire’s January 12 2020 update says it all; RWA has continued to devolve, the labor of the people of color who ran for the emergency BoD last year has been for naught, given that the will of the white base is basically, “fix our reputation, change nothing in the actual racist system”.

* * * * *

First, please do read the description in Nami Sparrow’s video, it makes a difference in the context of Cathy Hay’s intentions (diversity panels with NDAs?)

Second, Vi at SnappyDragon, who originally pointed me to Nami’s video on the Peacock Dress, has now pointed me to this beautifully written and narrated, heartbreakingly heartfelt video by DSA Threads Costuming (read the video description here too, as well as her pinned comment; historical violence is deliberate, never accidental or without agency)

* * * * *

It only took six weeks, but Bernadette Banner has now posted about this issue to her community tab.

Call me an asshole, but I don’t remember anything in her original promotional video (now long gone from public view), about the conditions for funding that are now posted in the link above. Whatever her current reasons to be vague about what the verbiage means, one wonders that she needed six weeks to post the links to the channels of CosTubers of color who spoke out, and who could have certainly used a bit of vocal support from one of the most visible white figures therein.

4 Responses to “The Peacock Dress: a tale of white women’s privilege and tears.”

  1. Susan 01/11/2021 at 9:19 PM #

    Thank you for posting this summary. I gather Ms. Banner has come out and donated the funds raised in the last 24 hours. I am a white woman who wants to wear swishy skirts and follow the costume community for inspiration rather than from a desire to make period clothes. It has been so very educational to listen to the folks affected by this dress and hear how the folks without my privileges see the issue.

    • azteclady 01/11/2021 at 9:54 PM #

      Welcome to my humble digital abode, Susan, and thank you for the information; it explains the sudden surge in views in the last twelve hours or so.

      I have now updated the post (again), with a link to Ms Banner’s community post.

  2. Sharo 23/11/2021 at 5:43 PM #

    I believe I read that she signed and honored an NDA and made her statement the day it expired. She removed herself from the process of creating the dress, though perhaps too quietly for your taste, earlier than this. I do think that coming to terms with your own lack of knowledge/insensitivity/mistakes … can take some time.

    • azteclady 23/11/2021 at 6:50 PM #

      Oh, definitely too quietly “for my taste”.

      If the justification is, “she could not say anything publicly, because NDA”, how does it hold given her apology under Nami’s video.

      If she could not say anything about her withdrawal until a certain date, yet she could post a comment on Nami’s video–which is a public space that got hundreds of replies within hours–but could not post a link to the video to her own community tab for six weeks after…

      That does not compute.

      But that’s just me.

      In my own space, thinking about whiteness and privilege.

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