The Great WWI Paris Designer Label Scandal

Which One IS the Toni?
I am indebted to author and collector Thelma Bernard whose research serves as the basis for this column. She unearthed the following information from her vast collection of old publications and felt it would have universal interest to vintage garment collectors as well as to collectors of all vintage items. This is Part 1 of a two-part series about fraud, sweatshops and the law in the vintage textile industry.

For the past 20 years, vintage textiles has been a popular and growing field for collectors. Clothes and accessories in particular have been bringing premium prices, both at auctions, online sites and local stores. Collectors speak of pride about their garments, hats and shoes that they have acquired by inheritance or purchase, particularly those with a provenance or bearing a Paris label. Nothing quite so elegant as a Worth or a Georgette or a Paquin.

But are these labels genuine? Are these garments first rate house designs or secondary workmanship, a conspiracy to defraud American women? Step back into time and then rethink your collection. The explosion occurred on March 1913 when the Ladies Home Journal published a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, an American journalist and author who played an important part in exposing corruption in business and politics including child labor and the patent-medicine business:

Dishonest Paris Labels:  How American Women are Being Fooled by a Country- wide Swindle

The American woman’s slavish and insistent demand for things Parisian has brought about a swindle that today permeates almost the entire dressmaking and millinery business in the United States.” If, for example, a woman has a so-called imported gown with a Worth label sewn in it the odds are overwhelming that it is fraudulent; or a Paquin or a Drecoll or a Doucet label, or any other French label. If she has in her hat a Georgette, a Talbot, a Reboux, a Marie Louise or any other Paris label, it’s a hundred chances to one that the hat was made in America and the label is a forgery.

WWI Paris Designer Label

Fraudulent Paris labels are today being used broadcast by the millinery and dressmaking trades of America. The houses which are not guilty of it are the rare and notable exceptions. Some idea of the extent of the practice may be gained from the fact that the manufacture of the false French labels for American-made garments has become a specific branch of the trade-mark weaving industry. The forgeries are woven by machinery and are sold in lots of from one hundred to one thousand.

The entire article revolves around Adams’ investigation in several U.S. cities which revealed that although hat label forgeries were easiest to obtain, one could procure.

At so much a hundred forgeries of Talbot, Callot, Worth, Redfern, Poiret, Lewis and a dozen other noted Paris names. At one factory a regretful manager explained that he had no Paquins…‘but if you will bring us in an original we will reproduce it exactly and turn you out a thousand in a few days. We can guarantee to reproduce any imported label you bring us, so that the Paris shop itself couldn’t tell the difference.’ If one does not wish to buy in lots there are plenty of wholesale millinery and dress establishments which will sell as few labels as you desire….one pays as much as twenty-five or even fifty cents apiece dealing in this manner.

The article notes that there were legitimate labels that might contain the words Copied after Worth as an example; but Adams’ shocker was a conservative estimate that “not less than two and a half million hats, gowns and cloaks were on sale in the US with fake labels.” A number of incidents are used to support the scam.

A wife brings out her new cloak to show a designer guest in her home. She tells him she paid $175 for it. ‘Isn’t that a bargain? Why it must have cost more than that in Paris.’ The friend examines the cloak and says, ’Your cloak was made in America. This finish shows that. Without the label, it would have cost perhaps one hundred dollars. Therefore you really paid seventy-five dollars for that little bit of cloth about three inches by three inches.

A woman who was a partner in a wholesale dressmaking establishment went to a New York department store which boasted genuineness of its goods. A saleswoman showed her what was labeled a Parisian dress. The woman turned up the bottom of the garment to examine the hem. The saleswoman stated ‘You can’t tell anything by that. The Paris modistes are finishing their models for importation in the American fashion.’ But the woman wanted to speak to the buyer; he came out to assure her that was a Paris model. ‘You see the label? When you see a Paris label in this store you may rest assured that it came from Paris.’ Replied the woman, ‘The label possibly came from Paris, but it’s the gown I’m asking about.’ She turned up the hem again. ‘That doesn’t look like Paris finishing. It’s too good and solid.’ Still the buyer insisted he had bought the gown himself while in Paris. The woman left, smiling to herself because the misbranded dress had been turned out at her own establishment not three months previously.

Adams report stated that the House of Callot Sisters, fed up with the fakery, ran an ad in selected US newspapers giving a list of US companies which had purchased the season’s Callot designs as well as the number of designs bought. One list included 88 companies [houses] with a total of 356 purchased designs. The ad in part stated:

Certain unscrupulous houses have been in the habit of showing fictitious Callot models made up for the purpose of selling their inferior goods, even using copies of our belts.

Adams explained in the article how such a scam in the fashion business in that era could occur:

No importer expects a profit on his genuine Paris garments. He doesn’t buy them for that purpose. What he really buys is a model with the right, perfectly understood, by the Paris designer of copying. After the season is over the original gown, worn and with all its freshness gone from constant hanging on the model or from frequent tryings-on, is cast aside, given away or sold for as low as five percent of its cost. Meantime its copies permeate the trade. The original importer may label these copies honestly or he may not. If he does he cannot prevent the dealer to whom he sells from ripping out his label and substituting one purchased in New York.

The article then presents a rundown of what different levels in the trade had to say about the scam. Alexander M. Grean, a leader in the fight for honest labels in New York, publicly announced in 1911 the “sham importations” and in the October 1912 Women’s Wear he published facsimiles of home-made forgeries purchased by himself in New York. Grean is quoted by Adams as saying:

The trouble is with the American retailers who believe that no good thing can come out of America…..they have over-advertised Europe until now, in order to have a market, they must represent that Europe is the source of their wares.

A Madame Simcox of New York told Adams, Hundreds of dressmakers are afraid of their own labels. They make a wonderful creation. They look at it and say ‘Why that is good enough to be French’ so they put a French label on it and sell it for French.

Adams claimed that an American woman had one chance out of fifty that she bought a genuine Parisian cloak or gown and one chance in two hundred a genuine Parisian hat.

The article included a list of firms which used honest labels, including such familiar names as R.H. Stearns & Co., Boston; R. Altman & Co, Marshall Field & Co., Gimbel Brothers, New York; and John B. Stetson Company, Philadelphia. There were also photos of some labels and illustrations of a lovely lady painted by the noted artist Harrison Fisher.

July Elite

A talented and skilled seamstress capable of making such elaborate dresses as these probably felt her garments would sell quicker with a French designer label than with her own.  Elite Styles  Oct. 1913

Supporting Adams article were comments on the magazine’s editorial page, giving additional statistics about the scam. They could be right out of today’s news headlines.

Although nearly impossible price-wise for discussion purposes, we will theorize that a Parisian dress can be purchased in Paris for shipping to the US at cost of 750 francs. That is $150 in American money. For ocean freight, add $5. Then 60% customs duty/New York or $90, bringing the total to $245. Add dealer profit of $55 [considered low] and the dress is now up to $300 for which an experienced buyer says has an actual value of $50.

The editorial closes with a touch of morality, asking if an American woman manages to get a dress honestly bought in Paris:

What does she get? Simply the styles worn by the mannequins of the French racecourses and the woman of the underworld of Paris. For a French gentlewoman would not for a single moment dream of wearing the clothes that are offered the American woman as Paris fashions. This is an indisputable fact known to every importer and buyer.

Thelma Bernard makes an interesting observation:

Now what is really important about this scandal is that the forged-label garments of then have become the antique/vintage clothing of today. How many museums or private collections in 2000 could be housing forgeries? It is quite a thought.

The art world learned in the 1990s that forged masterpieces had been bought totaling mega-millions. There have been forged autographs and faked ancient artifacts. It doesn’t appear that non-genuine ladies’ designer clothes could escape, either. Perhaps it should give us a secure feeling that no matter what, human nature continues to prevail when it comes down to money. Ah, well, even our very first wardrobe maker Eve placed the blame elsewhere!

Choices and Options
Despite modern-day legislation and worldwide hi-tech surveillance and cooperation, current designer rip-offs continue to flourish; today’s woman, while more aware of and knowledgeable about fraud, still faces the same consequences as yesteryear’s damaged purchaser.

If you are going to purchase vintage items of substantial value or where label is crucial to identification, you might want to get some expert advice beforehand. Books on vintage garments are available at the major chains; possibly there is a local vintage expert who can give you some tips.

If you suspect some of your labels or garments are not quite authentic or would like to know more about your collection, consult a local expert or textile curators at universities or museums. Often they can supply you with local sources and literature.

Actually, any collector, regardless of field[s] of interest, should have several good reference books as tools for informing, selecting and purchasing. Some of the sites listed below may not provide you with direct answers but they can steer you to the particular sources you seek.

http://www.kent.edu/museum Select ask the staff option. Also check out dictionary of textiles and other options

http://www.athm.org American Textile History Museum; see textile conservation center

http://aic.stanford.edu/geninfo Also provides links to museums, heritage preservation

http://w3.gorge.net/klabarre Mother & daughter author team of vintage clothing   reference books

http://www.costumegallery.com Costume and fashion designer books and reference; link to Costume Society of America

http://www.addall.com     The Complete Guide to Vintage Textiles, Elizabeth Kurella, 1999. Krause Publications — identifying, pricing and collecting. Price ranges from $10 to 19.95 list; also a search for vintage textile references yields 8 other books

The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.

Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.

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