More on Dior's "Quiproquo" cocktail dress

« previous post | next post »

Last week (6/5/15), we examined the fantastic calligraphy on a dress created by the great French fashion designer, Christian Dior (1905-1957), that is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

"Christian Dior's 'Quiproquo' cocktail dress and the florid rhubarb prescription written on it"

During the course of the discussion carried on in the comments to the post, many fascinating details about the dress and its former owner were brought to light.

I am pleased to report that two members of the staff at the Met have kindly provided additional information that sheds further light on this most impressive cultural artifact.

Joseph  Scheier-Dolberg, Assistant Curator of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, writes:

I am pleased that the Language Log community has dived into this subject with such gusto—and great results! I am the person who originally identified the fragmentary inscription on the Dior dress based on style, tracking the inscription down to Zhang Xu’s “Bellyache Letter”. Prior to that, no one had linked the marks on the dress to any identifiable work of calligraphy. Here are my thoughts on your questions:

1.     The Met owns a rubbing of the Zhang Xu calligraphy (1977.375.31a, b)—in fact it is currently on view next to the dress itself, so I hope Language Log folks will come see the juxtaposition if they are within striking distance of NYC. After identifying the inscription from the dress, I went digging in storage to see if we might have a rubbing of the piece, and sure enough we had one. It was part of a complete set of rubbings of the stone inscriptions currently housed in the Forest of Steles Museum (Beilin 碑林) that was purchased directly from the Chinese government in 1977. I do not know of any other US museum that owns a rubbing beyond the Rubel and the Met, but I wonder whether any other museums bought the complete set from Beilin in the 70s? I was not able to find any.

2.     As for whether any of these have been exhibited before, I can only speak to the Met’s rubbing: this is the first time it has been shown. It was unbacked until I found it and had it prepared for exhibition in this show.

3.     I am not aware of any prior translations. I made an informal translation for myself in the course of preparing to show the work, but I was aware even at the time that mine would benefit from the expertise of specialists in TCM and likely other subjects as well. It is great to have a proper translation.

I recognize that my answer to Question #2 above is disappointing, because it means that the direct inspiration for Dior’s dress (or Foy’s commission of it) remains unknown. Of course, the Met’s rubbing was not in the States (and likely did not even exist, as it was probably made in the 70s) at the time of the commission, so that’s out as a possibility. Harvard’s rubbings remained under-catalogued even when I was there for my MA in 2002, so my guess is that the Harvard rubbing would have been buried, unbacked, in a box somewhere and unlikely to have been exhibited. (It is worth checking if it remains unbacked; if so, it probably has never been shown). I am struggling to imagine the circumstances under which such a rubbing would have been exhibited in the 40s and 50s. Even further, given the nature of museum displays of Asian art at that time, I doubt that the rubbing would have been deciphered and translated sufficiently clearly to make its content known to Foy. The rubbing, as you will see from the gallery display, is rather small and fragmentary, and not easy to display.

One important question that remains open for me—in spite of what seems to be a developing consensus on Language Log—is whether the choice of Dutong tie was the client’s or the designer’s. The research on Foy is very interesting, and proves that she was a demanding client when purchasing couture dresses, but I think the dress may actually be a ready-to-wear piece, not an actual work of couture. My understanding is that Dior established a ready-to-wear shop in NYC in 1948, so this might have been something purchased off the rack or at least made for Foy from a design hatched in Paris without her knowledge. I have asked my colleagues in the Costume Institute to weigh in on this and I will update Language Log when I know more. My instinct tells me that Paris may be the more important place to look for a Dutong tie exemplar than the States. I imagine—and this is pure imagination, but that’s what I’ve got to offer at this point—Dior running into this piece in a book or display space in Paris, falling in love with its visual qualities,  and then finding a capable Sinologist to decipher it for him (or ignoring the semantic value altogether). I think that the next stop for this research is Paris. One possible first step would be to see what’s available for rubbings in the Bibliotheque Nationale. It also would  be interesting to survey French publications on Chinese calligraphy from prior to 1950.

I hope this is helpful. I will look forward to joining the dialogue and keeping up with the progress. It is very gratifying to see such close attention being paid to the piece!

James Watt, Curator Emeritus of the Department of Asian Art, writes:

I am forwarding an email from Dr. Peggy Ho, a specialist in the study of 碑帖 at the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which gives the basic information on the bellyache tie, which may be useful – especially the fact that the stone was recut in the Ming period, giving rise to the possibility of variant readings. (See below)

The reading of cursive script is notoriously difficult, and not just for us today. There is the case of the 張芝冠軍帖 which reads differently in two versions – in the 淳化閣帖 and the 大觀帖. In the latter, cut only a century later, the two characters 不可 are combined to make the word 處, and the whole passage makes much better sense. This is a point I discussed in the Sir Percival David Lecture I gave in London two years ago, which I am in the process of writing up now – having lost the original manuscript. (Again, this example was pointed out to me by Peggy Ho, as will be acknowledged in the published paper.)

From Peggy Ho, as forwarded by James Watt:


  1. 張旭《肚痛帖》,宋嘉祐三年(一○五八)刻,刻石現藏陜西西安碑林,亦有說碑林藏石是重刻。
  2. 此帖被刻入明刻《潑墨齋法書》卷九(金壇王秉錞編次),著錄見容庚:《叢帖目》(香港:中華書局,一九八○),冊一,頁三一六。
  3. 拓本藏地應不少,其中臺北中央研究院傅斯年圖書館有藏拓本,資料見「傅斯年圖書館見珍藏善本圖籍書目資料庫」,如下:
作者: 張旭 (唐) 書
書名: 唐肚痛帖
版本: 拓本
標題: 碑碣-拓本-唐(618-907)-中國
年代: 宋嘉祐三年(1058)刻
附註: .草書, 張旭 書三字正書
數量: 1幅
索書號: T614.52 1146
其他書名: 肚痛帖
收藏: 本件藏入第896小筒


I am also grateful to Maxwell K. Hearn (Douglas Dillon Curator in Charge of the Department of Asian Art), Suzanne Valenstein, Tegan Miller, and other members of the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for assistance in enabling out investigations to continue.


  1. JHH said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 9:44 am

    An interesting thread! I look forward to more!

  2. K. Chang said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

    Found a short profile of Ms. Foy's design philosophy here:

    Even has a picture of her in her prime, in a beautiful gown (may be one of the other Dior gowns she owned)

    The question that we doubt we can ultimately answer was, as brought up before, was the quidproquo gown designed "at the request" of Ms. Foy… or was in "in anticipation of request of Ms. Foy"?

    We need a Christian Dior historian.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

    @K. Chang

    Thanks for letting us see Thelma Chrysler Foy wearing a gown that she obviously treasured, and also showing us two other Dior gowns she owned, plus glimpses of the fabulously French apartment at 740 Park Avenue.

  4. Mark Mandel said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 4:58 pm

    For those who, like me, missed the earlier post or didn't retain vocabulary from it, "tie" here does not mean "cravat" or "knot":

    tiè 帖 ("a book containing models of handwriting or painting for learners to copy or individual specimens from such a book")

  5. K Chang said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 10:08 pm

    She's apparently a real taste-maker back then. Here's her with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1948

    Nothing to do with the Quid Pro Quo dress, I know, but if she bought it, she should have at least worn it once. Met data said dress was dated 1951 and donated to museum in 1953. Searching Dior 1951 Fashion got me no useful hits, but plenty of magazine covers (none of which seem to have a similar style).

  6. Jeff W said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 4:38 am

    Wow! Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, the person who linked the calligraphy on the Dior dress with that of Zhang Xu’s “Bellyache Letter,” responded. And no one had made that connection before. That’s really a pretty amazing find.

    I really doubt that the dress is not an actual work of couture, although that is pure speculation on my part. Dior might have had a ready-to-wear shop in New York in 1948 but from what little we on the blog know about Thelma Foy it’s difficult for me to imagine she was buying her clothes “off the rack.” And somehow this dress, with its layered meanings, seems too “multidimensional,” too much of a “statement,” to be anything other than an individually commissioned piece. Well, let’s see what Mr Scheier-Dolberg’s colleagues at the Costume Institute have to say.

    My questions are not about how Christian Dior or Mrs Foy came across the Dutong tie—although that would certainly inform some of the answers—but are a bit more “meta-” following from the earlier post:

    First, assuming the dress was made to order for Mrs Foy, what were Christian Dior or she (or both) doing in putting that text on the dress?

    If Christian Dior and his client knew something of the meaning of the calligraphy, they had a bit of an inside joke going—the other aristocratic, cosmopolitan women could pride themselves on their sophistication and worldliness, all the while projecting profundity onto calligraphy lifted from a text that’s basically about getting a hold of, possibly, a constipation remedy.

    For that scenario to work, Dior and Foy would not need to know much more than the name the text is known by. i.e., “Bellyache Letter.” It seems pretty unlikely to me that either one of them—Dior or Foy—would have come across a rubbing of that calligraphy without finding out at least its name, either from an accompanying text or from the person providing it to them. That’s not so much because the text was “well-known” in China—Victor Mair says that in the original post and Robert D. Mowry says it in the comments —but because, in the relatively few rarified contexts where Dior or Foy might have come across it, it seems likely that the name and, perhaps a bit of the meaning, would have been part of the context—in that book or display space in Paris (or maybe asking the person who ran the display space). They didn’t just stumble upon it, getting take-out at the local Chinese restaurant.

    The most salient clue, if not the best one, that seems to consistent with the idea that they might have had some idea as to the meaning is the name of the dress itself: “Quiproquo,” which could be a reference to, as Laura Morland suggested, quiproquo, a French word for “misunderstanding.”, used in expressing “being at cross-purposes.” The dress had that name in 1996 when Richard Martin, the then-curator of the Costume Institute, who apparently thought the calligraphy was Japanese, was describing it (so the name of the dress was apt as to him, albeit in a different way) which means it’s not any sort of after-the-fact appellation that’s been applied now in light of the fact that we have a fuller understanding of the text. In other words, it’s not our way of saying that Dior or Foy “misunderstood” the text. I’d surmise, because I can’t think of an alternative, that that’s the name Dior himself gave the dress when he created it and it was intended as a sort of meta-comment on how people would misinterpret it.

    A bit of a digression here: I find this dress and the message fascinating because it works on a different level than, say, Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky” or Vivienne Tam’s “Mao dress,” the latter also on display at the current exhibition. In those, you can tell there is some “meta-” message to think about; no one mistakes Tam’s work as a piece of Cultural Revolution propaganda—it wears its meta-message on its sleeve (well, literally, all over).

    The Quiproquo dress isn’t like that—it works successfully “on the surface,” as a cocktail dress with a stunning ebullient calligraphic design, that is to say, with no overt “meta-”message at all. But if Dior and Foy knew what the text meant even superficially—and knew full well that people admiring the dress would not even think there was anything other than a profound meaning behind it— then, the dress is also operating at a level above that of “Book from the Sky” and the “Mao dress” and is, in its way, more slyly subversive. It’s not about “making sense of” a meta-message like the “Book from the Sky” and the “Mao dress” are. It’s more of a comment about those who are completely unaware that there is a meta-message to be made sense of.

    And, to get really “meta-”—but I think it works here—: if we, as observers, think Dior and Foy did not know the semantic value of the text, placing them in the same category as the grandes dames who, possibly, admired it—when, in fact, they knew exactly what they were doing—our miscomprehension, which results from knowing full well the meaning of the text, becomes yet another level of “misunderstanding.” Dior and Foy are playing a joke on us.

    But it seems really unlikely that Christian Dior and Thelma Foy did not know. Why? They’ve chosen a text where the form—the gorgeous calligraphy—is completely at odds, at “cross-purposes” with the content—a rhubarb prescription for some abdominal pain. The dress is likely to be “misunderstood” because of that mismatch and that misunderstanding is an intentional part of the design which itself is not meant to be understood by people seeing the dress—and the resulting creation is called “Quiproquo.” The dress makes perfect sense. If we assume that they did not know, then the choice of text, the specific name and the two together all become pretty much inexplicable. The dress makes no sense at all.

    That raises my next (largely rhetorical) question:

    What is the juxtaposition of the dress and rubbing, in the context of the exhibition, “really” saying?*

    It almost seems like the exhibitors are saying one thing: the dress is an example of our “reflected fantasy” of China—that is, after all, what Mr Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibition, says the show is about, and probably that’s the most likely message a naive observer would take away—and the dress itself might be saying something very different: it’s more of a comment, not even on the “reflected fantasy” of China, but, really, on the people who are unaware of that reflected fantasy.

    And, if that’s the case, there’s sort of a (oh, no!) meta-meta-comment going on: even the display, which purports to show one kind of misunderstanding (i.e., haute couture dress has “stomach ache” written all over it, ha!), is itself the display of another (i.e., the people putting together the exhibit—or rather, even the people putting together the display—don’t fully apprehend† the intended meta-meaning of the dress).

    In an exhibition devoted to the “meta-”meaning of the beautiful objects on display, the now-apparently very aptly named Quiproquo dress might be the most “meta-” of all.
    *The standard answer is usually something like “We’re just presenting ‘the data’ and leaving it up to the visitors to draw their own conclusions,” but that answer, I think, (1) skips over the fact that, in the context of the exhibition, without more, the visitors will inevitably draw some conclusions more than others (if the context were an exhibition about what an irrepressible joker Mrs Foy was, the conclusions people would draw, with the same “data,” would likely be far different) and (2) obviously, by design, doesn’t address what the people who set up the juxtaposition think—which, given that the Quiproquo dress seems to be about what meaning people attribute to it, might be some additional interesting and relevant “data” to assess.

    †That’s not intended as a disparagement of the people putting on the exhibit at all. I’m just giving my take of the possible multiple levels of “misunderstanding” at play.

  7. Suburbanbanshee said,

    June 14, 2015 @ 7:27 pm

    Did they know somebody who was a Sinologist but also part of society? Van Gulik, maybe?

RSS feed for comments on this post