"Just" a dress? How Wikipedia blew up over a wedding dress.

The following is an analysis paper I wrote for my Writing and Popular Media class I took this past semester. The original intent of this paper was to analyze how collaborative writing works in spaces like Wikipedia. I chose to analyze the discussion in the "Talk" page of the entry for Kate Middleton's wedding dress. I had heard about the "controversy" over it but this was my first detailed exploration of that discussion.

Fair warning: This will be a lengthy post. For those who want a tl;dr...Wikipedia editors didn't like that someone tried to create an article for Kate Middleton's wedding dress so they tried to delete (or at least merge) the article. There was a 36 hour conversation and it was eventually kept. The attempt to delete the article is indicative of the problems of having editors (the majority of whom are male) deciding what is important for the larger community, many of whom have different interests than said editors.

Note: The sources credited in the parenthetical citations throughout this post are acronyms for the various Wikipedia pages I was looking at for this project. The links are included at the end of this post.

Middleton arriving at Westminster Abbey. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images from Vogue

          On 29 April 2011 Prince William, Duke of Cambridge married Catherine “Kate” Middleton (now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) in a lavish ceremony in Westminster Abbey in London, England. According to its edit history on Wikipedia, user Chzz attempted to start an article for Catherine’s wedding dress, at 12:00pm. The article was short, consisting of only brief information about the dress known that had only been recently released and confirmed by Buckingham Palace and an edit note stating, “start, because it is inevitable this needs to be spun off” (RH). Chzz seemed to have realized the importance of having an article page for the dress and was attempting to get one started. At 12:16, user Erolos submitted a Vote for Deletion due to its being a “completely non-notable unexpandable stub article” (RH). In just 16 short minutes the fate of a stand-alone article about the wedding dress (and the fate of future articles for similarly notable wedding dresses and iconic outfits) was held in the balance. In this analysis I will attempt to analyze both the discussion that occurred over the course of 36 hours on the Article for Deletion page for the wedding dress as well as the article itself (as it exists today). I feel it is important to address both the article and the behind the scenes discussion in order to fully understand the importance of both the dress itself and what it represents within a space like Wikipedia.

          First let me provide some backstory. The dress had been the subject of wild speculation for months. Almost as soon as the engagement had been announced industry insiders were throwing out ideas for who would design the dress. On the day, as Catherine stepped out of the car in front of the Abbey, the Palace issued a statement that the dress had been designed by Sarah Burton for the British fashion house Alexander McQueen. Images of the dress bounced around the world in seconds thanks to both the wedding being telecast live as well as the vast social media coverage it was receiving. Immediately compared to Grace Kelly’s wedding dress and garnering praise for both Burton and hailed as a triumph for British fashion and a design house as iconically British as Alexander McQueen. Within minutes even the casual observer of the conversation happening around the world about the dress could tell that this was not just “any” wedding dress.

 Back to Wikipedia, at 12:17pm Erolos tries to redirect the article for the dress to the page for the Royal Wedding using the excuse that there were no other articles for wedding dresses. This would become a key argument used by deletionists in the conversation that would unfold on the Talk page. At 12:31 Chzz urged for a redirection back to the dress having its own page and called for a discussion to take place on the Talk page for the article. At 12:35, Chzz then comments, “apparently, I need to establish ‘notability’ despite Google News showing me 20,000+ refs, within the last hour (RH). Starting around 13:04pm on the Articles for Deletion page for the dress a vote for whether to keep the article, merge it with the article page for the wedding, or delete it outright began. Over the next 36 hours the dress, and its notability and cultural significance, as well as the significance of similar iconic wedding dresses and garments, would be discussed by the Wikipedia editing community. The archived transcript of this discussion (AfDWD) is fascinating to say the least and is indicative of the difficulties of collaborative writing spaces like Wikipedia where not all members of the community share similar ideas and opinions of what is “important” or “significant.”

 Very early in the discussion the dress is dismissed as being a case of recentism the main counts against it are: 1) non-notability 2) all the text currently exists in the wedding article 3) it’s incapable of being expanded beyond a stub 4) no other “wedding dress of” pages exist and 5) Wikipedia is not a news source. Some users (such as Jennie--x) point out that articles about Catherine’s dress as well as the dresses of Diana, Princess of Wales and Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and others might be of interest to the audience of Wikipedia, but these articles need a chance to be created and developed. User Kingpin steps in early (14:07pm) as a strong advocate for keeping the article and points out that it only took 16 minutes for the article to get flagged and that it had not had enough time to be developed beyond a stub and that Chzz had intended on doing more work on it over the following period but, “due to your persistent attempts to delete it and lack of proper discussion with him a bout (sic) the matter, he no longer plans to have anything to do with it until the drama has died down in a few days time” (AfD, emphasis in original). In the rest of their defense for keeping the article, Kingpin goes on to elaborate and offer counter claims for the main reasons (listed above) for deleting the article. While there are plenty of voices voting for deletion, the main split quickly appears to be between keeping it as its own article or merging it with the article page for the wedding itself. Throughout the discussion the two sides, delete/merge vs. keep, are represented by both level-headed members and those who seem happy to reduce the discussion to snark:

Delete - ‘Wedding dress of…’ as an article in an encyclopedia? Exactly the sort of thing that made me all but quit as an active user on this project.” (emphasis in original)
Delete - I’ve seen some pretty retarded articles around here over the years…but this tripe gives them a run for their money…Mention it in the main article, but there’s no call to devote encyclopedia treatment to a flippin dress.” (emphasis mine)
Keep - None of the AfD arguments make sense…A lot of the argument seems to boil down to ‘I don’t think this ought to be notable.’ But notability isn’t some kind of reward Wikipedia gives to its subjects.”
Strong Delete - Totally absurd article. Snap out of the hypnotism.”
Keep – how pathetically stupid is this? And how pathically stupid will WP look if we’re the only people who don’t think the dress is a ‘notable subject’?”

There were also mentions about the fact the both the article for Kate Middleton and for the Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton had both been flagged for deletion at the time of their creation. About half way through the discussion however, an interesting turn of topic began to develop and some users felt as if they were being subjected to personal attacks:

Strong Keep – I believe that our systemic bias caused by being a predominantly male geek community is worth some reflection in this context. Consider Category:Linux distribution stubs – we have nearly 90 articles about Linux distributions, county only the stubs. With the major distros included, we’re well over a hundred. One hundred different Linux distributions. One hundred. I think we can have an article about this dress. We should have articles about one hundred famous dresses.”
Keep – The topic clearly has enormous notability and so our editing policy is to keep this material. Note also the Foundation’s concern that there is insufficient participation by women in Wikipedia. We have here a computer gamer – creator of articles such as List of Dungeons & Dragons deities – trying to delete a fashion article which is of great interest to millions of women. This seems to be a case of improper bias.”

This last quote is perhaps one of the most interesting of the bunch, as well as the long reply that followed as a rebuttal (not quoted here). This comment, and many similar comments in relation to the gender issues on Wikipedia, and the role this article plays in those concerns, has problematic elements and many of the Wikipedia editors in this discussion seem to be missing the overall point. And this brings me to my conclusion about the discussion on the talk page and my analysis of the article as it stands today.

            The users/editors involved in this discussion are so busy thinking about their own opinions of the dress that they fail to think objectively about the real issue. Ultimately it is not about the dress. It is about what the dress (and others like it) symbolize. As a scholar of fashion history, fashion rhetoric, cultural studies, and memory studies, I have learned that garments like royal wedding dresses have huge cultural significance. The gown worn by Diana, Princess of Wales (designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel) set the style and tone of wedding dresses throughout the 1980s. That women chose white as the color for their wedding dress is due in large part to the fact that Queen Victoria chose a white dress in 1840 to her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Burton’s design for Catherine is reminiscent of the gown worn by Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco and has spun off several similar versions at various price ranges. From an economic standpoint alone, the ramifications of the popularity of this dress make it notable. Something the members of the Wikipedia community didn’t seem to register. Instead, because it wasn’t important to them it was deemed to be not important at all. In a collaborative writing community, that seems to depend on an army of volunteer editors to create and maintain articles on a vast array of subjects, this kind of subjective thinking seems potentially damaging to the community and its reputation. To automatically dismiss the significance of the dress and the importance of having an article devoted to it, as well as articles devoted to other iconic garments seems to be shutting out a substantial audience base for the site.

            I am currently in the process of a long term research project that focuses on Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (as well as three other notable past and present fashion icons, with two more possibly being added at future stages of the project). While Wikipedia is not a “source” for my research, it is a place that I find myself going to at the start of a project, just to see what foundational information exists. I first started the project after this discussion had occurred and at the time I didn’t bother to look at the Talk section or the Revision History. I was also lucky that by the time I had started the project pages for Princess Diana’s dress and the pink suit worn by Jacqueline Kennedy on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination, as well as the navy blue Issa dress worn by Catherine during the official engagement announcement press conference, had been created. These pages were all beneficial to my early stage research process and it would have been a shame if they had not survived their initial creation. While not every Wikipedia editor would agree with me on their importance, that fact that I, as a visitor and user of the site, went to Wikipedia specifically to search for these items seems indicative of their notability and significance within Wikipedia.

            As for the wedding dress article itself, it’s not without its issues, though I certainly give credit to the various editors who worked on it throughout its (rocky) history. The article is broken up into three main sections: 1) Pre-Wedding Speculation 2) Design and 3) Reception and influence. The Pre-Wedding Speculation section is well documented and shows the intense interest that surrounded the dress. The Design section is perhaps the strongest, with great attention paid to the technical details of the dress and its construction. When looking at the talk page discussion surrounding the lace used for the dress there was a lot of attention paid to make sure that the article included the most correct information and that it didn’t feature misinterpreted information found in a press release. But even in this section a basic misunderstanding (and unwillingness to even attempt to understand) of the finer details of the dress’s construction are evident. One user stated, “referring to the embroiders at the [Royal School of Needlework] as ‘dressmakers’ is incorrect. The RSN specializes in traditional hand embroidery, not fashion or couture” (T). Another user followed by commenting, “I can’t quite understand the objection to using the term ‘dressmakers’, on that basis that, despite whatever qualifications and titles they might have, they were in fact making a dress” (T). Though this commenter ultimately agrees with dropping the term “dressmaker” from it’s association with the RSN it’s still indicative of the problems of having editors who are not knowledgeable on the various aspects of design and construction making changes to these articles. 

             The misunderstanding here is simple, but would still lead to inaccuracies in the article if they were allowed to stay. The embroiderers at the RSN made pieces of lace and embroidery that were then passed on to the team of couture dressmakers at Alexander McQueen to be included in the dress. The RSN is home to impeccably trained and highly specialized embroiderers and needle workers. This is a completely different skill from dressmaking. It would even be inaccurate to call the team of couturiers at Alexander McQueen “dressmakers” because while they are, in fact, making a dress, they are doing it to a standard far above that of a typical “dressmaker”. A lack of regard for this distinction in terms further illustrates a lack of regard for the various fields of fashion design and technology in general, not only within but also well outside the realm of Wikipedia.

            In regards to the Reception and influence section this is the section that could use more revisions. At is current state, it is primarily a collection of quotes about the dress from members of the fashion industry. However, we’re still too close to the event to be able to have any serious long-term historical analysis of the influence of the dress. That influence will, no doubt, exist and become apparent as the years go by, so in the meantime, it’s a considerable victory for the inclusion of iconic garments in Wikipedia that the article has been allowed to exist and that the precedent has been set to allow for similar articles. Overall, the article does a decent job of staying objective and highlights the most significant information. It is well sourced with 41 resources cited and was last modified (at the time of this paper) on 22 August 2014. While I’m sure many of the article’s original detractors would still find the piece irrelevant and insignificant, I would probably be inclined to say the same thing about those 100 Linux articles. But I would still defend the inclusion of those articles if there were people willing to work on creating and maintaining them. In the end, I think the more interesting story about this article is the one that occurred behind the scenes among the member community and what has resulted from that drama and discussion.

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