by Michael dEstries
Categories: Fashion
Tags: .
Photo: Jason Olive

While most of the world gushed over Livia Firth’s beautiful upcycled Gary Harvey gown for the Oscars, some people in the vintage community were less than thrilled with how the piece was created.

“Congratulations to Colin and the dress is very pretty,” began one commenter on Firth’s UK Vogue Blog. “However I am horrified to find that ELEVEN vintage 1930s dresses were cut up to make this single dress. Clothing from the 1930s is incredibly rare nowadays, and we should be preserving what is left rather than destroying our fashion history.

“I can’t agree that this is in any way ethical – it would have been much more appropriate and eco friendly to restore one dress than to cannibalise eleven. Those of us who are passionate about vintage clothing and fashion history are appalled by this choice.”

Multiple critiques like that one could be found on both Ecorazzi and over on the Mother Nature Network. In the interest of knowing more about the 11 dresses that were used to create Firth’s Oscar gown, I contacted the UK store they were sourced from, 360 Degrees Vintage, for additional details.

“Although the dresses Gary picked were beautiful they were far from perfect,” said Lynn Burgess. “There was some damage to the netting and the top part of the dress which he removed. The other dresses had some signs of wear and staining which he managed to cut out and reconstruct to make Livia’s stunning dress.”

“The dresses were there just hoping some one would come and bring them to life again, and Gary Harvey managed to do this,” she said, adding that it was a thrill to know that their vintage gown were going to be walking the red carpet.

What do you think? Was Livia’s gown a great example of upcyling? Or should designers draw the line on only using discarded pieces with no historic value?

About Michael dEstries

Michael has been blogging since 2005 on issues such as sustainability, renewable energy, philanthropy, and healthy living. He regularly contributes to a slew of publications, as well as consulting with companies looking to make an impact using the web and social media. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his family on an apple farm.

View all posts by Michael dEstries →
  • Catherine Lloyd-Evans

    My view is that if it hasn’t polluted farmers’ land with massive doses of pesticide, or used vast quantities of water in cotton production, and has a low carbon footprint and high sustainability, then bring it on. High upcycled couture is a great way to herald a new era in fashion responsibility – and a new lease of life is better than dresses which are simply preserved, exhibit-like, for posterity.
    x x x

  • Esther Freeman

    I’m so glad you investigated this – I was just thinking of doing the same myself. I think the vintage community have got their knickers in a right old twist over this one without knowing all the facts.

    Let’s face it, a lot of vintage clothing is not in very good condition. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it nice or of good quality. If someone can breathe some new life in it by upcycling it then all the better.

    But of course vintage clothing that is pristine and of a classic design that illustrates the period shouldn’t be touched.

  • Elena

    The vintage dealer involved originally said that these gowns were the best that she had – I find it hard to believe that an upmarket boutique would count among their “best” gowns only those that were beyond repair. Most vintage – particularly of this age – will show some signs of wear…that doesn’t make it irreperable, as those of us who collect and/or deal in vintage clothing would know. If the dresses were unsalvageable in their original form I would understand and applaud this use (I wear upcycled vintage utilising textiles and trim from irreperably damaged gowns). I’d like to see photos of the gowns in question, as in the wake of the controversy aroused by this decision the parties involved seem determined to downplay the condition of the gowns without saying that they were unwearable or irreversably damaged. Vintage clothing is a finite resource, and wearable 1930s gowns becoming increasingly rare. Wearing vintage or using elements from gowns that can’t be repaired is a good message; destroying a finite cultural resource that is an important part of our social history is, however, not sustainable at all. I hope others don’t decide to destroy a large number of gowns to create a single dress – there are few enough of these gowns as it is.

  • Elizabeth

    Nonsense. Any vintage shop worth their salt would not be selling unwearable vintage gowns. Yes, there may have been signs of wear and slight damage, but that is nearly always repearable.

    360 degrees are trying salvage their reputation in the face of criticism. The fact is 1930’s gowns are rare and if Livia Firth was that serious about eco-fashion it would have been more prudent to make do and mend.

  • Jonathan Walford

    As someone else said on another thread, if someone had taken apart eleven vintage automobiles to make up one jalopy, there would be plenty of outcries!

    Those who don’t understand the loss of historical and cultural material make light of the vintage clothing community and compare the incident to ‘serious’ issues in the eco-repetoire. However, I don’t understand why anyone concerned about our ecology would consider the remaking of eleven dresses into one an eco-friendly headline. There was little concern about the creation of the equivalent of ten dresses worth of waste scraps.

    After nearly two days, suddenly an explanation has been made that the dresses were all damaged – a crucial element of the facts that had been omitted by Livia Firth, Gary Harvey, and 360 Vintage in all previous coverage. It’s odd that the vintage community said in the very beginning, and repeatedly since, that if the dresses had been damaged beyond wear then the ecology of this story would be completely different. This 11th hour news smacks of spin-doctoring, but if the dresses were all damaged beyond repair then congratulations are due to Gary Harvey on creating such a unique garment for Livia Firth. However, I don’t think 360 vintage should boast that those ruined dresses were their ‘best stock’!

  • Lady Cherry

    I am also wary of this new information. Given the backlash from the vintage community it stands to reason that the shop owner would not want to alienate them, her target audience. Even if it is correct that all of the dresses were damaged, they were not necessarily beyond repair, and in any event using 11 of them to make one dress is extreme. I suspect that one of the repaired dresses would have been far prettier than what Mrs Firth ended up with, too.

    I am also miffed that this has been labelled as eco-friendly, going back to the use of 11 dresses – hardly best use of a limited resource. Re-use is of course better in an environmental sense than buying new. But that doesn’t automatically give it the right to be labelled as eco friendly. ‘GreenER’ does NOT equate to ‘green’….far from it in this case!

  • Leonie

    This is the question I posted on the 360 Degrees Facebook page.
    “As a vintage clothing lover I have to ask, what was the condition of the 1930s gowns used to make Gary Harvey’s dress? Were they already damaged beyond wearability or did he actually destroy 11 perfectly good vintage gowns.”
    Here are their responses verbatim:
    “360 DEGREES-VINTAGE: He bought the very best gowns but the end result was fantastic it shows what you can do with vintage dresses even damaged you could replace damaged section with something else.”
    Then, after some comments from others regarding they changed their response to:
    “360 DEGREES-VINTAGE I did say he bought the best gowns I didnt say they were perfect most vintage garments will have some sign of wear and tear.”

    And now I see Lucy Siegle has come out saying “The pieces were damaged to such an extent and or so tiny that they had little to no chance of resale in their original state”. (

    Aside from the fact that a dress being tiny is not a flaw (the growing waistline of the western population, now that’s a flaw), I doubt a quality vintage boutique like 360 Degrees Vintage would be stocking pieces with “little to no change of resale”. What I think is more likely here is that the gowns were probably in good condition for their age, which would include a little wear and tear, but probably not so much as to be unwearable. Given at least one of the gowns cost 250 pounds, one would assume it was in pretty good condition.

    The think they’ve tried to hard to do something that is clever and “green” and now they’re upset because they’ve copped criticism. It’s not just about people loving vintage, it’s about the claim of it being a “green” or “eco” dress. I’d be equally annoyed if he used 11 modern dresses to create 1. It’s a common issue with eco-fashion that they are excessively wasteful when they are “upcycling”.

    From an environmental sustainability perspective, recycling/upcycling is not better than re-using. If something it is possible and likely that something can be re-used in it’s current state, then re-using it is preferable to recycling it. Now we can debate whether it was possible and likely that the gowns in question would have found owners who would wear them in their current state. I’d also then question how likely is it that the Gary Harvey gown is going to get a lot of wear other than it’s Oscar appearance?

    There are plenty of options in between the “wear an original vintage dress unaltered” to “take 11 gowns to make 1″. More common and preferable ways of dealing with vintage gowns that have some damage include creatively patching holes, replacing some sections, dyeing the fabric to hide stains, altering length if the bottom is damaged, etc.. These options are less wasteful and can still produce a beautiful gown that combines vintage and contemporary looks.

    My original criticism still stands: Turning 11 wearable dresses into 1 is not “green” or “eco”. You can call it upcycled fashion all you want, it doesn’t mean it was the most ethical or sustainable use of the materials involved. If you’re going to call something “green”, be prepared to answer questions about the materials and process involved and cop the criticism where it is due.

  • amber

    Using 11 historical gowns to create one for the sake of being “Green” is ridiculous. If the designer was truly “green” he would have chosen badly damaged items, or fabric remnants to create the gown, having then made something from damaged unusable items headed for the landfill. Instead he chose the “best gowns” that 360 had to offer; perfectly wearable, historical gowns and destroyed 11 of them to make one. This baffles me as it totally misses to mark on what it is to be “green”. On their own, those 11 gowns could have been worn by 11 people, maybe more than once, but now it is one gown that will be worn once to make a very misguided point. Not to mention the leftovers which will headed very soon to landfill near you!

    I also want to reverberate the point that history is history. You wouldn’t dare destroy 11 tiffany glass lampshades to make a new lampshade and call it “green” even it there was a tiny bit of damage, or paint over a Piccaso and say it’s green because you’re re-using the canvas. I use these examples to drive the point. History is history, and once it’s gone, it will never return. Ms. Firth could have worn one beautiful, historical gown and called attention to both her cause and the awareness of the beauty in historical fashions. I’m sure she has great passion for her cause, but in this case she was very terribly misguided!

  • Gary Harvey

    Most of you are making valid points regarding the preservation of good vintage pieces, as a vintage collector myself, I have respect for clothing of all eras, I travel the world and know how hard it is too find those ‘perfect’ pieces, there’s a lot of mediocre garments out there.

    The main problem with most of your feedback is the assumption that 11 ‘perfect’ dresses were destroyed to make 1, it’s best to check the facts before making these assumptions.

    As stated previously the dresses were from or inspired by the era of the kings speech and of the 11 dresses used none were suitable for Livia to wear at the Oscars, they were either too distressed, very damaged, stained, too small, sun-bleached or simply a great fabrics in really unremarkable slightly worse for wear gown.

    I have no qualms about the dress, and the 11 dresses used to make it, I’m happy other people care about clothing vintage too and I’m glad I’ve done my bit to raise awareness of up-cycling and vintage clothing.

    Thanks Gary

    • The Red Velvet Shoe

      Hoping that you gave 360 Degrees a crash course on defining the condition of vintage clothing as she went on record stating you had “bought the very best gowns” in her shop. Funny how the story has evolved to what it is now.

      While the intentions of this “project” were admirable, the lack of integrity and truthfulness is not. That a client with the status and lifestyle of Mrs. Colin Firth would agree to wear a dress made from “distressed, damaged, decaying” (to quote you) fabric is a bit of a stretch for even the wildest imagination or the greenest of fashion divas.

      • Gary Harvey

        Just because you don’t believe it doesn’t make it untrue.