V&A Dundee

The Transformational Power of Design

Dr Bashabi Fraser offers a postcolonial review of transnationalism and appropriation, inspired by Shane Strachan's response to the work of designer Bill Gibb.

Written by: Dr Bashabi Fraser

Design is intricately linked to global trade, facilitated by empire in a web of connections that are transnational as well as transformational. The story of the rise and success of Bill Gibbs’ fashion designs in the 1970s - embodied in the Tana evening dress - is an example of this.

In his poem inspired by the dress, ‘Queen of Queens’, Shane Strachan writes in the voice of Farah Diba Pahlavi, the Shahbanu of Iran:

I am not your puppet –

I pull my own strings….

Poet Shane Strachan wearing an orange and grey patterned shirt, against a green background
Poet Shane Strachan was inspired by Bill Gibb's Tana dress and created a poem exploring its design origins

This is an affirmation of the sense of freedom that defines the artist who may borrow material and patterns from across nation-state borders and reach across historical periods to bring together an amalgamation of designs, textures and hues. In the process, the artist imbues the creation with local realities and influences and redefines it with the personal which has a two-way effect of expressing the artist’s personality on the one hand, and reflecting the desires and the dreams of those who are moved by the artist’s work on the other.

"What distinguishes artists like Bill Gibbs (and Shane Strachan) is an ethos that acknowledges these borrowings and a willingness to be inspired by the East, while remaining rooted in the local."

The cultural impacts of colonialism

While colonialism led to the economic exploitation of other countries for the benefit of the coloniser’s nation in a ruthless process of deindustrialisation of conquered regions to bolster and feed industries at ‘home’, it also brought back objects and artwork, texts and knowledges which were appropriated and infused in the products from factories which found their way into the life and homes, the workplace and city streets of the imperial nations.

What is fascinating is that while large corporations and international agreements between nations shape a transnationalism dictated ‘from above’, there are a whole set of non-state players who are influenced by the global and bring about a transformation ‘from below’ (Vertovec, 2009).

This is where the appeal of artists like Bill Gibbs lies – one who weaves cloths from elsewhere - voile, cotton and lawn with leather, blending textures and embellishing them with ‘exotic’ designs like the boti/teardrop/mango shape from India and as he looks back into history, when Persian designs flowed into India through transnational trade before the entry of competitive western powers. What distinguishes artists like Bill Gibbs (and Shane Strachan) is an ethos that acknowledges these borrowings and a willingness to be inspired by the East, while remaining rooted in the local – and in this case - the appropriation by Paisley of a pattern that wove the East and West in a seemingly seamless reality of interchange.

"In a postcolonial world, a postmodern consciousness has brought a new perspective on objects and designs that have been brought back to homes, shops and acquired by or donated to galleries and museums in Britain."

A complex and problematic process

Yet this adaptation process was far from simple. The making of voile from cotton brought from India, would be processed on its own or blended with linen and even polyester to give it the sheer look which once signified muslin, a fabric that was hand-spun from cotton grown in the Bramhaputra valley in north east India, famous for its delicate craftsmanship from ancient times as a product that ranged in quality but had no competition in the world as the much coveted ‘wonder gossamer’.

Close-up detail of blue, yellow and green pattern on a burgundy background
Original designs for Paisley shawls - credit Renfrewshire Council

The Paisley shawls, which used the mango-tear-drop pattern, were factory made and hence could be churned out in huge numbers, against which the fine handwoven Indian Kashmiri (Cashmere - a British adaptation and appropriation of a name) shawls could not compete, lowering the standard of artistry while making them affordable for the rising middle classes of Britain during the colonial era.

Shifting towards a new consciousness

While profits determined a market-driven economy globally and affected products and design during colonisation without any serious reflections on what such an attitude did to the economies of subject nations, in a postcolonial world, a postmodern consciousness has brought a new perspective on objects and designs that have been brought back to homes, shops and acquired by or donated to galleries and museums in Britain. The museums have risen to the challenge of identifying what William Dalrymple (2019) has identified as ‘loot’ in many cases, the brazen theft of treasures, an Arabic word that came to India and then travelled back to Britain in a journey that linguistically traces a reality of how the invaders operated in conquered lands.

"[Bill Gibb] was not only aware of the sources of his inspiration, but his artist’s imagination could cross nation-state borders, transgress to a historical past and even challenge gender perceptions and socially constructed boundaries with the respect that an artist has for art and its creator."

The curators and art historians in museums in Britain now sensitively question this glorified history of Empire and are writing back to it in a decolonisation project that revisits the history of art and design, of acquisition and appropriation and acknowledges not just the violence of the past, but also the indebtedness to colonial materials, patterns and above all, to the origin of ideas. This has been done by relabelling objects, retelling history and identifying a syncretism that marks not the clash of cultures, but the meeting of cultures that celebrates hybridity (Bhabha, 1994). The Turkish red, the warm terra cotta of tropical climes, the magic of indigo (mired in the plantation history of ruthless coercion) bring the hues of an imperial past to a bohemian syncretism that has the positivity of a global embrace.

This is where the work of Bill Gibbs is significant, as he was not only aware of the sources of his inspiration - in India and in Iran and a not-so-distant Persia - but his artist’s imagination could cross nation-state borders, transgress to a historical past and even challenge gender perceptions and socially constructed boundaries with the respect that an artist has for art and its creator. He could then use the Paisley pattern’s curious mango shape and Shane Strachan could, in more recent times, discern the tear-drops they have signified:

My teardrops are caught

On my Paisley-pattern sleeves.

In this project, the history of art and design seems to have come full circle - from blatant robbery (loot) to sensitive acknowledgement and respect that have a transformative and healing power on viewers and readers, made possible by this long awaited and welcome process of creative reconstruction.