Slaves of Fashion: Indian textiles, new artwork and French colonial history

Posted on: 9 May 2018 by Kate Marsh in 2018 posts

Singh Twins

It was in January 2014 that I first met The Singh Twins. They had conceived a project for a number of new artworks that would explore the history of Indian textiles and, having read my work on the French colonial presence in India, wanted to discuss British and French rivalry in India before 1799 as well as the role that Indian textiles played in revolutionising European fashions in the eighteenth century.

Delicate Indian muslins, made into column-like white dresses, were fashionable in Britain and France between the late 1770s and the early nineteenth century and my research had explored their prevalence in eighteenth-century France. They had been popularised after the queen, Marie-Antoinette, was painted wearing a muslin ‘chemise’ gown in 1783 by the artist Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, and these lightweight dresses liberated women’s bodies from the artificiality of stays, panniers, hoops and pads and, according to writers such as Le Gentil, gave a tantalizing glimpse of the female form.

These fabrics were imported at a time when medical and philosophical opinion was advocating naturalism in clothing. A number of medical treatises appeared in Britain and in France that warned of the dangers of ‘barbarous’ whalebone corsets; readers were advised that they perilously restricted women’s breathing and were harmful during pregnancy.

In February 2014 the Singh Twins and I visited the Château des Ducs museum in Nantes, which houses a permanent and extensive seven-room display detailing the history of the slave trade and the role played in it by the French Atlantic port of Nantes. Subsequently the project and collaboration grew to involve National Museums Liverpool.

The resulting exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery (until 20 May 2018) includes eleven new digital fabric artworks displayed on lightboxes, each highlighting a different theme relating to India’s textile industry, and nine paper artworks examining the entangled relationships between trade, conflict and luxury from the age of Empire to the present day. It also showcases some of the objects from the collections of National Museums Liverpool which are referenced in the works.

Slaves of Fashion: New works by the Singh Twins © National Museums Liverpool

The Singh Twins’ artwork has always interrogated wider social, historical and cultural debates, inviting the viewer to consider the art in terms of both its aesthetics and the political questions that it raises. Executed in the eclectic, detailed, symbolic and narrative style for which the Singh Twins are well known, the eleven new works evoke wider social, cultural and political debates about global citizenship, trade policy and personal identity in a multinational, multicultural world.

Global connections permeate many of the Twins’ works. In representing these connections, both historical and contemporaneous, the Twins’ art resonates with the historian E. H. Carr’s famous answer to the question ‘What is history?’: ‘the writing of history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his [or her] facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present’. The Twins force us to ask what we really know, and what we want to know, about the past and the present.

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