Monday, February 10, 2014

Ceil Chapman, Draping Genius

My recent obsession with everything Ceil Chapman means that my eye goes straight to her designs when I peruse Pinterest.  I am usually lazy about clicking through to original sources, but something made me follow through with this picture, and boy am I glad I did - because it led to a treasure trove of gorgeous designs.

Mme. Grès is often referred to as the queen of draping, but I believe Ceil Chapman gives her a run for her money.  So I was thrilled to find these patented examples of her designs; how wonderful to find original source material, complete with dates, and even a few clues as to construction if you look closely.

It also brought to mind the idea of fashion copyright - a hot button topic in recent years.

Certainly there are a limited number of ways to cover the human form, and I suspect that at this point, they have all been done before.  Can anything really be considered new or fresh?  Comme des Garçons “Lumps and Bumps” Collection from 1997 comes to mind – but other than wearable art, would it not be possible to find “copies” of any garment if you look hard enough?  

And what about an a-line dress – can someone claim ownership over a design that is incredibly basic?  How complex does it have to get before a design is truly distinguishable from another?  I can see the designer of a massively intricate haute couture creation getting credit in perpetuity for their genius, but then again, how likely is it that someone would or even could copy it.  

Does anyone really think that the disposable copies that are mass produced and hocked by fast fashion companies are anything like the designer originals?  I doubt that someone willing to spend $500 for a designer dress with an expectation of quality goods is going to be happy with the cheap knock-off version.  The average consumer would never be able to afford that expensive design.  So is the designer, in fact,  losing a customer?  Probably not.  And is this terribly different than the department stores that were purchasing quality goods from fashion houses fifty and sixty years ago and having a talented individual create a house brand version?   

Since consumers (or the majority of them) no longer seem interested in buying quality instead of quantity, and demand that the very latest must-have item arrive at their door tomorrow morning, getting rid of the H&Ms and Forever 21s of the world seems rather hopeless.  After all, quality and old world craftsmanship is never going to happen quick enough for people in this instant gratification age.

How about using part of the design such as the bodice, and pairing it with a different skirt?  Would that be considered a breach?  Here are certainly instances where Ms. Chapman has borrowed her very own ideas.  A petal bust here, a surplice bodice there, simply swapped with a skirt from a previous design.

And what would you think about someone re-producing one of these designs - the patent, after all, is long expired.  Personally I would find it extremely tacky to make a profit off of a line for line copy (but I don't imagine huge corporations really care about anything other than money).

But putting aside the question of whether or not there is anything proprietary about fashion design, these looks are fabulous.  And I will admit that I am not above borrowing or being inspired by those who I consider the masters.  Isn't imitation considered the highest form of flattery?  Legality aside, I sure do love looking at and being inspired by beautiful things. 

Now if only I could find an original version of the pattern I am currently working on or the original patented line drawings - wouldn't that be something!?  

[Click on image for source]


  1. Wow, these are gorgeous!
    In fact, I wouldn't be above trying to mimic one of those 'loosely draped over a solid shape' designs… But only for personal use and giving credit to the original.
    I think the old copying system was different from what is happening today: department stores bought designs for the purpose of creating copies, and designers knew that. In fact, they often bought toiles, not show dresses in expensive fabrics and they paid extra for the right to make copies.
    Nowadays, a lot of fast fashion companies are just copying what they see (and because the media landscape is so different, it's impossible to keep them from seeing shows). And a lot of high fashion houses no longer make the bulk of their money in couture but in pret a porter (so, high end RTW. Although of course, in many cases most of the money is actually made from accessories, make-up and fragrances) which removes some of the exclusivity. And the fast fashion giants can produce faster which means copies can be in the stores before the 'originals'.

    Although I agree with you completely about the different customers of high end brands and chains like H&M, I think there are other issues.
    The first one actually comes from art theory on copying: If people are constantly exposed to copies of a certain item, this will de-valuate their experience when confronted with the real thing. It's easy to see how this would work in fashion. You would see that the designer item was better in every way than its cheap knock-offs but would you really want to own it, and consider it as a status symbol, knowing that there are so many cheap copies out there which look quite similar from a distance?
    The second problem is with the middle of the market. A place where smallish brands try to carve out a niche for themselves. These are extremely vulnerable to retailers with house brands who will buy their lines ones, copy them and sell them cheaper (which they usually can because they are either able to place larger orders with manufacturers or even just because they cut out the middle man, the original designer)

  2. What wonderful images of magnificent draping. I was very lucky to find a late 1940s Ceil Chapman at a local vintage show but it's more of a free flowing dress. How amazing to be able to try one of these draped creations!

  3. This is a thorny issue, but time and again, legal cases have found that clothing, clothing designs or concepts, and even patterns are not copyrightable items/objects. So far, the illustration of a clothing design/concept may be copyrighted but not the concept itself. Of course, the patent office deals in other terms. And the CFDA keeps lobbying for fashion design protection.
    Trystan Bass posted a very good primer on copyright in 2012; it's aimed at bloggers, but it includes two very good sections on the then-current copyright laws governing clothing/costumes and design (see #4 and #11).
    Here's a link to the findings of a 2006 congressional committee on proposed legislation to protect fashion design under copyright law: It's very interesting to read.
    And here's a link to an article presenting a 2013 update on that proposed legislation:

  4. I am dying over so many of these designs! They are astounding!

  5. Now I "get" what the fuss is regarding Ceil - she rocked!
    Thanks Laura Mae!

  6. These are utterly, sublimely gorgeous!!! They also, I can't help but think, look a bit like a set of the most fashionable paper doll's clothes of all time.

    ♥ Jessica

  7. Those are gorgeous designs, and my guess is that they are too complex and expensive for a designer to manufacture in today's world. It's pretty amazing how many Ceil Chapman designs were turned into patterns by Spadea, with instructions for the home-sewing gal of the 50s and 60s to recreate them. (Spadea was a mail order company that was sold through newspaper columns.) I have a few of those patterns I plan to work on, though the fitting and construction is pretty daunting.

  8. Hi,good afternoon.I´m trying to make a draped dress on the sides but without seams in the middle back and front,do you know how can I make something like that?Thanks, I´m from Medellin Colombia,bye
    Dioger Yarce