It may be a cliché that fashion culture is a modern-day religion, that shopping centres are cathedrals, cash desks are altars, and that brands emit some kind of phantasmagoric aura akin to spirituality and the power of a cult.
But, it came to mind upon entering Firstsite gallery in Colchester with stained-glass window-like radiant images lining the walls. Each throws coloured light into the dark space, pulling the viewer in closer to see the depicted detail.
It's when up close that the images reveal more – both in narrative, but also materiality. Upon closer inspection, these glowing panels are not glass but tightly stretched fabric, as if on tenterhooks for display, light from behind passing through the fabric and illuminating not just the colours but also the deep political histories rendered in the image.
The works are all by the Singh Twins, a British duo who draw upon Indian artistic and cultural heritage, mingling politics and ideas within media and references drawn from broad histories and places. Here, they turn attention to the politics of fashion, the title of the show alludes to the contemporary addiction to fast fashion and the relentless cycle of new, it also looks deeply into the relationship of clothing history’s tight entanglement with colonialism, expropriation, power, and trade.
A figure stands in a blue-hued, patterned work, electric blue jeans under historically ornate Indian royal attire. She is Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Emperor Shah Jahan who oversaw the Mughal empire in the early 17th century. The Sing Twins tell Vingt Sept that what they seek to do is start with a historical object and then find links and stories which people may not associate with them. So, in relation to these jeans, they state:
“We were looking primarily at dyes and the colour of blue and wondered whether or not there is a link between the modern jeans and this ancient natural indigo Indian dye. In actual fact, the fabric of jeans was something that dated back to the 16th-century village of Dongri in India – which is where the word dungarees comes from – and then we followed that line of exploration to look at how that fabric was dyed blue. It was really something that was used initially for sailors in merchant ships, and then when the Dutch and Portuguese visited India they adopted it as workwear for the seafarers because it's very durable.”
The artists then speak of how in their Indian heritage denim jeans are sometimes frowned upon as being a symbol of “the American dream and a Western lifestyle,” and in wearing them somehow something Indian is being lost, so works such as this set out to remind of the myriad of ways histories, cultures, and taste interrelate.
Within the image, behind Mumtaz Mahal, are countless other details built into the pattern and backstory – a chained slave mirroring the famine-inflicted body of an Indian weaver, allusions to ancient tales of trade and exploitation. These many subtle references can each be unravelled from the wider frame to reveal deep, powerful, and political stories connecting fashion and material to exploitation and power: in 1770 and under the semi-control of the British East Indian Company, farmers were forced to grow cash crops including indigo, and without the backup of edible crops millions died.
Replicated in the work is a “NO KILLER JEANS” sign, touching on the horrific risk for workers involved in stone washing modern denim, an aesthetic trend in British fashion but one disassociated from the labour and danger inherent in the processes behind it. “It sums up the whole relationship that the exhibition as a whole explores, which is this relationship between trade and slavery and luxury lifestyle,” the artists add.
In conversation with the Singh Twins, it becomes clear just how rich each work is in both illustrated and researched history, each figure and detail opening up new lines of discussion and new insight into complicated, and often cruel, histories. There are too many strands from these works to get across in an article such as this, indeed more than the average visitor could extract from a visit. But even only by scraping the surface of the politics, the world of fashion can be reconsidered and framed outside of its normal cycles of speed, capital, whim, and surface.
It is not just historic, however. More contemporary politics is illustrated. Modern-day figures including Trump, May, Blair, and Bush are depicted in smaller paper works relating to power relations, globalisation, fair pay, and working conditions of those making the fashion worn in the West. The subthemes of exploitation and empire find a perfect match with these more modern players – Trump sits on a nouveau-riche throne with a tartan bag, CK jeans, and surrounded by symbols of modern trade between the global south and north. A field of Monsanto-patented cotton being sprayed with controlling chemicals sits behind, with a fashion week staging to the back, an industry providing platform for some of the worst excesses of corporate abuse and ecocide.
But it's not all preaching and dark. Yes the subject matter is meaningful, but the sheer colour, pattern, packed detail, and rich humour throughout means a visitor can choose how deep – and angry – to be when faced with the works. Yes, there’s much to get angry about with the history woven so deeply into the history of fashion, but as with the output of the industry there’s a deliberate beauty, and it’s only in acknowledging that dialectic that a future for the industry which is aware of its past and processes can be improved for itself, and the people who make it.
Words by Will Jennings
Slaves of Fashion: The Singh Twins is on at Firstsite in Colchester until 11 September
For more information visit HERE