'Colonial violence in floral polyester': New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper apologises after backlash for 'Trail of Tiers' dress

Trelise Cooper 'trail of tiers' dress
Trelise Cooper's 'Trail of Tiers' dress (left) alongside a 1988 reenactment of the 2000km journey Native Americans were forced to trek by US military officials in the 1830s (right). Photo credit: Trelise Cooper/Getty.

Trelise Cooper is facing an online backlash after 'mistakenly' naming a dress after the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation and mass killing of thousands of Native Americans in the 1800s. 

But the New Zealand fashion designer has apologised for the "embarrassing mistake" she says was made out of "ignorance". 

As part of her summer 2021 collection, Cooper called a floral frock the 'Trail of Tiers Dress'. 

The pink maxi dress is described on Cooper's website as having "tiers throughout [and a] high neckline that ties behind and high low hemline". 

"Jazzy pink tones are suitable for every summer party to an evening out with the ladies," the description reads. 

But online commentators have pointed out that the name can only be a reference to The Trail of Tears, the series of forced relocations of approximately 46,000 Native Americans between 1830 and 1850 by the US government.

Marched over almost 2000 kilometres of rugged land by military officials following the passage of the 1830s 'Indian Removal Act', over 4000 victims died of exposure, disease and starvation.

Victoria University's Professor of Indigenous sociology Joanna Kidman called the move by Cooper "colonial violence in floral polyester" on Twitter. 

"I guess it's cool to be ironic about genocide and the forced relocation of 46,000 Native Americans," wrote Prof Kidman, a settler-colonial racism researcher. 

"Accounts of Native women being raped by settlers and soldiers on the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk of the Navajo don't translate well into a fashion statement... but hey, Trelise Cooper, guess you're making a living, right?"

Prof Kidman called for Cooper to donate all proceeds from the dress to the Navajo nation and Hop nation reservations "who are struggling during the pandemic". 

In a statement to Newshub, Cooper apologised for "using a term whose meaning we were completely unaware of".

"We called a dress Trail of Tiers because it is a long tiered dress with a trailing back hem, unaware of the meaning of the term Trail of Tears," she said.

"This mistake was made out of ignorance. But given how much pain ignorance of past injustice has caused, we are distressed that we have added to this harm.

"We apologise for any hurt and harm that this mistake has caused."

Cooper said they are recalling the dress from all stores "to be renamed immediately".

On Twitter, commenters pointed out it's not the first time Cooper has caused offence with her work, and not even the first time she's used Native American references.  

In 2014 Cooper was forced to apologise after sending models down the runway wearing Native American headdress, calling the costume "70s bohemian vibes". 

"I unreservedly apologise and regret any offence I have caused through using Native American Head Dress in my catwalk show. I genuinely respect and honour all cultures, races and religions. It was never my intention to disrespect another culture," she said at the time.

"It is my hope that through my mistake and ignorance, like me, people now know and are aware of the sacredness of the headdress to Native Americans." 

Even earlier back in 2011, Cooper came under further fire for having 10 models stretch the skin around their eyes back with clear tape to create an imitation of Asian features.