Celebrating “The Chosen Resort of the Artistic Shopper”: Liberty in Fashion

Arthur Liberty’s eponymously-named Regent Street emporium began life as Victorian London’s foremost Oriental Bazaar, piquing the public’s ever-increasing appetite for the exotic with its array of fabrics, costumes and homeware imported from the newly “opened” Far East. The next 140 years are history… history brought to life in the form of more than 150 sweetly smocked, peppily printed and courageously coloured objects of delight, gathered together for the first time as part of the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Liberty in Fashion exhibition. After Nyne’s Fashion Editor enjoyed a private tour given by curator Dennis Nothdruft and former Liberty designer Sarah Campbell in advance of the exhibition’s opening…

Liberty in FashionGet a bunch of journalists in a room full of kimono-inspired wraps and it’s not going to be long before the old “cultural appropriation” chestnut crops up… so what do our Liberty insiders think of Artie’s intercontinental textile dealing? Dennis maintains that, despite its colonial origins, Arthur’s primary intention (aside, presumably, from jzuzhing up the thinking Victorian’s wardrobe a little bit) was to educate, rather than appropriate. Sarah, who, in collaboration with her sister, Susan Collier, can claim responsibility for a prodigious outpouring of print designs for the company during the 1960s and 1970s, reminds us that so-called appropriation goes both ways – a point neatly illustrated by a conversation she’d had with another designer that very morning who, whilst walking down a street in Tokyo, had nearly expired with excitement on spotting a Japanese woman wearing an obi belt emblazoned with the iconic Bauhaus print designed for Liberty by Sarah and her sister back in 1969!

Producing both “ready-to-wear” garments and dressmaking fabrics – for those of more limited resources and/or a more creative bent – Liberty quickly became synonymous with the “libertarian” dressing style of the Aesthetes, popularised (at least in certain circles) by Pre-Raphaelite renderings of maidens of the middle ages by the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, along with Oscar Wilde (to whom this article’s titular quotation can be attributed), was one of Liberty’s earliest clients. It’s a long way from the vision of “buttoned-up” Victorians we’re all so familiar with – if you were an art school student in the 1990s, you got away with wearing black lipstick… if you were an art school student in the 1890s, you got away with dressing like a medieval princess (a medieval princess in a home-sewn pinny, perhaps, but a home-sewn pinny fashioned from Liberty’s finest).

Liberty in Fashion showcases a dazzling array of creations produced using Liberty fabric and print designs over the past century and a half – the results of in-house design, home crafting and designer collaborations (from Poiret-for-Liberty to Nike x Liberty). Eye-opening, eye-popping and occasionally eyebrow-raising (just when you thought the Liberty ouevre was growing a tad predictable, along came the Art Nouveau Revival) – if you consider yourself an “artistic shopper”, why not come take a walk in the footsteps of your predecessors..?

Liberty in Fashion is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF, from Friday 9th October 2015 to 28th February 2016 (11am-6pm Tue-Sat; 11am-8pm Thu; 11am-5pm Sun). Tickets cost £9 (£7 concessions; £6 students; children under 12 go free). Advance booking is advised.

Samantha Simmonds