V&A Dundee

Taking inspiration from Bill Gibb's Tana dress

Aberdeen-based writer and performer Shane Strachan has long been captivated by Bill Gibb's creations; taking a journey from Fraserburgh, via 1970s London to 19th Century Persia, he explains how the Tana dress became his poetic muse.

Written by: Shane Strachan

Read and listen to Shane's poem Queen of Queens here.

Bill Gibb was born in 1943 and raised in Aberdeenshire on a farm on the edge of Fraserburgh. Inspired by his grandmother’s artistic leanings and the encouragement of his art teacher at Fraserburgh Academy, Gibb left home to study Dress Design and Fashion Drawing at St. Martin’s School of Art in 1962. He later began a postgraduate at the Royal College of Art, studying alongside Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes. Through collaborations with his then partner, textile artist Kaffe Fassett, success beckoned and Gibb’s multi-patterned bohemian looks were soon filling the pages of Vogue.

A fashion illustration and image of a model wearing a large, billowing 1970s dress
One of Bill Gibb's fashion illustrations, and a dress featured in Vogue in 1971 - credit Clive Arrowsmith for British Vogue

Gibb went on to become one of Britain’s top designers in the 1970s due to his fantastical romantic garments in particular, which often took inspiration from the past, particularly Medieval dress and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as influences from his global travels and his native Scotland.

He became a firm favourite of the likes of Twiggy, Elizabeth Taylor and Bianca Jagger, and went on to present one of the biggest fashion shows ever staged at the Royal Albert Hall – his ten-year retrospective in 1977. However beyond this point, Gibb struggled financially as power dressing and punk became the desired looks of 80s fashionistas. He never hit the same heady heights in his career and sadly passed away in 1988 at the age of 44.

From Sandie Shaw’s songs to the words of a late 19th-century Persian princess, the various threads I followed are woven together in the poem.

Hailing from Fraserburgh myself, I’ve always been inspired by Gibb’s farming-to-fashion story and have been working on several creative projects focused on his life and works over the past few years. This includes a spoken-word exhibition and film, The Bill Gibb Line, commissioned by Aberdeen’s Look Again Festival in 2019 which went on to be re-exhibited in Aberdeen Art Gallery throughout 2020 alongside treasures from their extensive Gibb archive. With the support of the National Theatre of Scotland, I also created The Bill Gibb Line podcast which features a series of fashion show poems interspersed with collaged passages of Gibb telling his story in his own words.

Shop window showing Shane Strachan's exhibition
The Bill Gibb Line exhibition was part of Aberdeen's Look Again Festival

My process for creating these poems has often involved taking verbatim material from various sources, such as real fashion reviews and newspaper interviews of the time, then collaging them into poetic forms which capture Gibb’s story in a new creative way; this mimics Gibb’s artistic process in its Postmodernist collaging of various influences into something new.

Gibb was relatively transparent about taking inspiration from other cultures, often naming collections after the folk traditions or styles which influenced his unexpected combinations.

The poems take on various perspectives (often with differing accents when performed) to reflect the personas we inhabit when we change our clothes; the voices include that of fashion reviewers, models, Gibb himself and imagined voices inspired by the ‘ideal wearer’ Gibb often thought of when designing new garments, such as a Bronze Age bride for the final poem in the series, which reflects Gibb’s final Bronze-Age-inspired fashion show in 1985.

Archive image of Sandie Shaw wearing the Tana dress at the London Palladium in 1972
Sandie Shaw wearing the Tana dress at the London Palladium in 1972 - credit Evening Express archive

For V&A Dundee I have created a new poem, Queen of Queens, which is inspired by Gibb’s Tana evening dress. This garment is part of the V&A collection and was previously owned and worn by singer Sandie Shaw in 1972. As well as being influenced by Shaw’s songs (e.g. ‘Puppet on a String’), I was inspired by the V&A’s own description of the various materials which Gibb brought together in the one garment such as the three Liberty of London fabrics designed by Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell which make up most of the outfit: ‘Nimbus’ voile, ‘Country’ cotton and ‘Tana’ lawn. The latter is described as being ‘printed with a Paisley pattern in soft browns, terra cotta, sand and green on navy’.

I was previously aware of the colonial roots of this particular pattern’s introduction to Scotland from India via men serving the British East India Company, which is covered brilliantly in several articles by Suchitra Choudhury as part of V&A Dundee’s #DecoloniseSDG series.

Further research for the poem led me to discover that what is known as the ‘Paisley pattern’ in Scotland – an appropriated imitation of the teardrop-shaped kolka or buta motif on Kashmir shawls from India – likely had even earlier origins in Persia (modern-day Iran) as the boteh.

For his time, Gibb was relatively transparent about taking inspiration from other cultures, often naming collections after the folk traditions or styles which influenced his unexpected combinations with design elements traditional to Scotland and Britain. However, throughout the 1970s, many creatives were quick to appropriate without true acknowledgement of the sources of inspiration – an issue fashion still faces to this day; whether the designers of Liberty’s ‘Tana’ lawn fabric were aware of the Paisley pattern’s roots in India and Persia are unclear.

Close-up details showing the patterns of Bill Gibb's Tana dress
Details from Bill Gibb's Tana dress

Yet, the Tana evening dress’s inadvertent link to Iran and the Middle East intrigued me as, during financial struggles in the late 1970s and early 80s, Gibb relied heavily on commissions from this region, including those from Farah Diba Pahlavi, who was the Shahbanu of Iran from 1961 up until 1979 when the Pahlavi dynasty was ousted from power during the Islamic revolution.

Throughout the 70s, Pahlavi caught much international media attention for her increasingly Westernised dress-style, becoming known as the ‘Jackie Kennedy of the Middle East’, which in many ways reflected the actions she took within the limited scope of influence she had as a Shah’s wife, such as the setting up an American-style university which was intended to improve education for Iranian women, and amassing a vast art collection including masterpieces by Pollock, Rothko and Warhol.

While Gibb gradually lost favour with British buyers from 1978, the likes of Pahlavi were still keen on his princess-like fantasy designs. Although unlikely, it seemed ironic to me to think of Pahlavi and other Middle Eastern women potentially buying garments from Gibb that could have had the boteh motif from their own culture sold back to them after a long history of use and adaptation across the Middle East and Asia, and the later appropriation into British design as the Paisley pattern.

Archive images of Princesses Fatemeh Khanom and Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh
Princesses Fatemeh Khanom and Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh - public domain

As well as the Pahlavi dynasty, the writing of my poem was also inspired by the women of the earlier Qajar dynasty. Two 19th-century Persian princesses in particular caught my attention – sisters Fatemeh and Zahra Khanom, daughters of Nasir al-Din Shah – who have appeared in various memes focused on their faint moustaches, which was a female beauty symbol in Persia in the 1800s. As this article points out, this focus on their facial hair has often led to fake news and detracted from their fascinating lives, throughout which they argued for the improvement of women’s rights in their country.

For example, in her memoirs, Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884-1914, Princess Zahra writes: “When the day comes that I see my sex emancipated and my country on the path to progress, I will sacrifice myself in the battlefield of liberty, and freely shed my blood under the feet of my freedom-loving cohorts seeking their rights.”

From Sandie Shaw’s songs to these words from a late 19th-century Persian princess, the various threads I followed linked with Gibb’s Tana evening dress are woven together in the poem Queen of Queens which takes on the voice of a fictional Shahbanu, another ‘imagined wearer’ Gibb may have day-dreamt of while creating his fantastical garments...

Shane Strachan wearing a patterned shirt, standing in front of a green screen
Writer and performer Shane Strachan