Cathy Hay vs. Her Followers
By BETH WINEGARNER
This sidebar is a supplement to Historical Clothing’s Comeback
In mid-September, two historical dress experts with ties to India complained publicly, and fervently, about Hay’s Peacock Dress project. Their complaints provoked even more tension, revealing an even darker history behind the project than anyone knew.
First, the costumers argued that no matter how beautiful or unique the dress was, it still symbolized the destruction caused by British colonialism. In one video, Indian-American costumer Nami Sparrow went so far as to ask Hay to abandon the project. “By making this dress, you are implicitly supporting the trauma of colonialism,” she said. “Millions of Indians died due to the British occupation of India.”
Pointing out that colonialism’s reign in India wasn’t all that long ago (it ended in 1947), Sparrow said that “bringing up that trauma still affects people of color today.” Hay later responded with one of her own videos—acknowledging that the harm caused by the British Raj was symbolized in the original gown. She said she now wanted to change the gown project into “something a little different.”
In late September, another costumer, Miah Grace, released a video noting that, in 2020, Hay had requested an embroidery sample from with Mayankraj Singh, founder of the luxury fashion brand Atelier Shikaarbagh. Indian embroiderers in this shop possess skills that go back seven generations. Singh reportedly made a sample made but only sent Hay photos of it. After Hay stopped responding for many months, Singh went live on Instagram to explain what happened. Apparently, when his head embroiderer found the sample, he burned it, and scolded Singh for making it. “He said it was an inauspicious design,” Singh said, “and we do not make it anymore.” Hay later apologized to Singh, and he now considers the matter settled.
But that wasn’t enough for Miah Grace, who takes exception to a number of Hay’s business practices, which she regards as unusually restrictive. One of her complaints is that Hay’s organization, Foundations Revealed, requires its freelance writers to sign unusually restrictive contracts, which bar them from writing for other outlets for an extended period of time.
When asked about this, Hay said, “It is perfectly common practice across many different sectors to stipulate in employment contracts that employees cannot do work which benefits a competitor at the same time,” she said. (In truth, while many publishing organizations do impose non-compete restrictions on employees, those rules are generally considered unenforceable, and sometimes even illegal, when applied to contractors. For that reason, most publications don’t impose these rules on their freelance writers.)
In early November, after months of taking a public beating, Hay announced that she is abandoning the Peacock Dress project entirely. “It has become clear to me that my attempt to evolve a viable third option is not tenable,” she wrote. No matter what approach she might take with the project, Hay said, “It appears as though harm, chaos, polarization, conflict, and assorted mischief have continued.”
Hay’s decision left one big unanswered question: What would happen to all the money that people raised to support Hay’s project? For her part, Banner announced in a youtube video that her portion, $9,429, would be donated to other causes. (The Circle’s garment worker advocacy initiative ultimately received $5,929, while the Museum of British Colonialism received the remaining $3,500, plus a $3,500 matching grant from Banner.) As she wrapped things up, Banner apologized for her support of the Peacock Dress. In her video, Banner said “It was a tremendously irresponsible mistake on my part to take on a project without first doing my own independent research–on both the subject matter as well as the character of individuals involved.”
Hay said she is committed to continuing the conversation around the history of the Peacock Dress and the issues it raises. But not now, because “this very important conversation would be divisive rather than constructive.” Whether she will tackle a similar “impossible” project in the future remains up in the air. But it’s clear that Cathy Hay isn’t going anywhere–and that the costuming world will continue to keep a close eye on her work.