Liberty in Fashion

Reflecting on his ambition for the Regent Street store he opened in 1875, Arthur Lasenby Liberty said: `I was determined not to follow existing fashion but to create new ones.’ Mission accomplished – Liberty celebrates its 140th anniversary last year and its oriental inspired and floral prints have remained desirable throughout its history, confounding the rules of the fashion.

‘Liberty in Fashion’ explores how Liberty influenced fashion and vice versa. Ninety five per cent of the 150 items displayed are from the Butterworth collection (Liberty’s archives focus on fabric and have few clothes) and range from 19th century dresses and capes through to this season’s new collection of prints.

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Arthur Liberty started his business by renting half a shop on Regent Street with just a staff of three. He sold imported coloured silks from China and Japan, cottons and wools from India, and soon began producing what would become the famous Liberty silks, which were hand-printed with wooden blocks. He boasted Oscar Wilde, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Dame Ellen Terry as customers, and when Liberty opened its dress department in 1884, it was already the place to shop in London.

Liberty wanted people to be able to buy beautiful textiles and clothes at an affordable price – accessibility was paramount. Arts and Crafts ideas of the period influenced Arthur, but he knew William Morris crafts were too expensive for most. Early 20th century Liberty promoted ‘artistic dressing’, encouraging women to wear loose fitting dresses and medieval inspired costumes, often in fabrics of muted colours and embellished with embroidery, forming a dedicated following among the artistic, middle, and upper classes. Customers could buy a dress, have a dress made or buy an embroidery pattern. Liberty showed the possibilities of what could be created and offered something for every budget.

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The company came through the First World War unscathed – being overstocked with fabric meant they could sell throughout the war and remain stable. After the war women wanted a safe and reassuring look and in the 1920s and 1930s Liberty produced the popular delicate pale florals printed on Tana Lawn cotton that continue to be a mainstay of the company. The dresses of this period on show are a mix of home and tailor made, again highlighting there were several paths into the Liberty look.

In the 1950s the Liberty Design Studio was formed and did what it has been so good at doing ever since: reassessing and reinventing tradition. In-house designers pulled out Art Nouveau drawings from the extensive archives, redrew, rescaled and recoloured the designs to be at the forefront of an Art Nouveau revival. The Constantia print, based on an original 1890s design, in stunning jewel-like colours is seen in the exhibition in a silk kaftan. In the 1960s, young designers – Mary Quant, Jean Muir, David Sassoon – bought Liberty fabrics wholesale for their collections and the prints reached new audiences. In 1975 Liberty sold an impressive one million metres of fabric to French fashion house Cacharel.

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Textile designers were brought on board during the late 1960s and 1970s – first Bernard Nevin, then sisters Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell. The latter produced one of Liberty’s most popular scarf designs, ‘Bauhaus’, and at this exhibition preview Campbell commented how amazing it was at the time that Liberty wholeheartedly embraced cutting edge designers. Today Liberty collaborates with Nike, Clarks, Jimmy Choo, and many designers continue to use its fabrics – a 2013 Vivienne Westwood dress is on show. Always innovative, whilst remaining a bastion of taste and English heritage brand, the public’s enduring love of Liberty is why the Fashion and Textile Museum sold a record-breaking number of tickets for this show before the doors had even opened.

Fashion and Textile Museum, London

9 October 2015 – 28 February 2016
Tickets £9

Hattie Gordon, ‘Embroidery, the Textile Art Magazine’

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