The Tale of a Bill Gibb Dress

‘Be a latter day Infanta, in charted gold satin… be a frill…’ British Vogue, October 1st 1971
I have spent the past few months rifling through hundreds of beautiful clothes held in the Leeds Discovery Centre (and all under the watchful eye of a taxidermy chimpanzee!) From 17th Century undergarments to Burberry trench-coats it is a treasure trove of textiles that contains three centuries worth of classic pieces.

After sorting around 300 garments into chronological order I came across one of the most bizarre dresses I have ever seen. Dated 1976, full length, gold, black, red, and covered in print, applique and embroidery I thought had been labelled wrongly as its style was at odds with the low cut, puffy sleeved, brown and yellow dresses that made up the rest of the cupboard.

Dress designed by Bill Gibb for his 1976/1977 Winter collection

The dress was labelled Bill Gibb and I had to find out more about it.It is in fact, not a dress, but an ensemble made up of a skirt, tabard, and kaftan. The eclectic and contrasting layers make it a completely unique piece, and almost like a Sari. The kaftan has a large bee printed on it, as the bee was a marker of Gibb’s work, and often appeared on the buttons of his dresses. 

Alongside the bee are multi-coloured pansies printed underneath a layer of sheer sequins. The dress was created for Bill Gibb’s 1976/1977 Winter collection and was first shown in the spring on that year. It was previously displayed at Lotherton Hall (which is currently developing an exciting new area dedicated to its fashion and textile collection) and is stained with lipstick and makeup from its debut catwalk show, which I believe adds more character.

Who was Bill Gibb?

Bill Gibb was from Fraserburgh, Scotland. At an early age he showed a great aptitude for art and was encouraged to study it by his teachers. He later moved to London, where he studied at Saint Martins and finished first in his class, and after graduating he was taught by Janey Ironside at the Royal College of Art. 

He designed clothes for Baccarat, and in 1970 one of his designs for Baccarat was named dress of the year by British Vogue. There was even a room dedicated solely to his work in Harrods department store. After establishing his own brand Bill Gibb Ltd in 1972 alongside his partner Kaffe Fassett and business partner Kate Franklin his work became eponymous with the British Boutique Movement, which also included designers such as Ossie Clark and Jean Muir. 

Although the Pre-Raphaelite and Bohemian styles were popular with other designers of the seventies his work stood out due to his Eastern and Celtic influences, and outlandish prints. In 1971 he dressed Twiggy for the premiere of Ken Russell’s film The Boyfriend, which soared him to fame. His designs were also very popular with Bianca Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1974 he launched a knitwear collection, and in 1975 opened up a shop.

Unfortunately his company was in financial ruin and he is now one of the less referenced designers of the time due to his untimely death in 1988. Only three retrospectives have been held of his work. The first was ‘The Golden Boy of British Fashion’ at the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum (which holds the largest collection of his work in the world) in 2003, and the second and third in 2009 at ‘Bill Gibb- A Personal Journey’ at the Costume Museum in Bath and ‘Billy: Bill Gibb’s Moment in Time’ at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. 

However, his legacy lives on as his clothes have inspired the works of contemporary designers such as John Galliano and Giles Deacon.

By Billie McKenzie, Dress and Textiles Intern

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