Exhibition Review: Slaves of Fashion

India was one source of the cotton that was used in the mills of Lancashire and so clad many people. An exhibition by The Singh Twins at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool deals with this and other aspects of the production of raw material and finished clothes, emphasising the role of European, especially British, colonialism; it is on until 20 May and then moves to Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

A series of light boxes and paintings, together with contemporary objects, make up the display. The works include many references to historical events and individuals, mainly from other collections in Liverpool; for instance, one Indian woman, who grew up in Britain and campaigned for women’s rights, is depicted wearing a ‘Votes for Women’ badge from the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Textiles have a long history in India, and in the fourteenth century, Europeans apparently believed that the source of cotton was lambs growing on trees! But it was not just cotton, as there were also silk and cashmere industries. Indigo was used to dye fabrics, especially military uniforms; one depiction here of Mumtaz Mahal (the Taj Mahal was built in her memory) shows her wearing jeans, to demonstrate the true origin of denim.

In India cotton was not just a crop, it was also made into clothing, but this did not fit in too well with the priorities of emerging British capitalism. As pointed out in the display, the nascent British textile industry was protected by the Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721, which banned the sale of finished cotton clothing in Great Britain, and made it illegal to wear imported silk and calico garments. Raw cotton was not included in the prohibition, so that could still be imported for processing. Further, it is possible that one cause of the Bengal Famine of 1770, which resulted in ten million deaths, was the insistence of British plantation owners that Indian peasants grow indigo rather than food crops. After the abolition of slavery, Indian workers were transported as indentured labourers to sugar plantations in South Africa and other places.

This is a thought-provoking exhibition which covers both historical and present-day issues.              


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