Thursday, 29 October 2015

Liberty in Fashion

Although my life has changed a lot lately and is still in transition, I'm also finding the time to keep up to date with my fabric obsession - I won't ever let go of my lifelong passion!  A couple of weeks ago, I was so happy to be able to travel to the opening day of The Fashion and Textile Museum's latest exhibition, 'Liberty in Fashion'.  I booked the curators' tour with Teresa Colinette and Dennis Nothdruft to gain a greater understanding of what I was about to see.

My group was told that the whole exhibition began as a private collection and looks at the history of Liberty from a fashion context, as clothing. 

We began with a short history of the company.  Arthur Lazenby Liberty was first employed at the Great Cloak Emporium, Farmers and Rodgers on Regent Street and became manager of the Oriental Department in the 1850's.  The Aesthetic Movement became fashionable at this time, popularised by Oscar Wilde.  Liberty became an expert in the Japanese style to cater for this trend and opened his own store over the road from the Cloak Emporium selling Oriental furniture, objects and ceramics.  Wilde wrote a column saying that Liberty was the best place to shop.

This early dress in primrose silk is a good example of the embroidery used on Liberty clothing at this time.

This Spitalfields silk dress would have been worn for court presentation.

A collar from Liberty archive last seen at the V&A in 1975.

Inspirations from Japan, China and India went into the mix for a fashionable lifestyle.  Liberty began to reach saturation point with his imports and began to produce his own fabrics - soft draping silks.  He set up a costume department within the store as Victorian ladies were unsure what to do with the new fabrics.

An orange loose dress in the exhibition, named a bernous.  This was the classic shape.

Artistic, aesthetic dressing was a reaction to what was happening in this country during the Victorian era.  Brightly coloured aniline dyes had been discovered, which were popular, but Liberty produced soft, natural dyes.   All garments had embroidery and subtle attention to detail.  They referenced the Greek style.  Embroidery patterns could be bought as do it yourself craft projects and a sense of craft is a technique apparent in Liberty dresses.

Paul Poiret produced four collections for the Liberty store after his own fashion house closed.  He had a similar aesthetic.

The modern day fabric design duo Collier Campbell (see earlier post for more information) purchased a dressing gown that was produced around this time as inspiration for a recent furnishing fabric.

Tyrian silk took natural dyes well.

1920's overprinted lame coat.

Aurora silk coat - almost like tie dye.

Liberty continued to have an ongoing connection with Japan.  A fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, he designed costumes for the Mikado.  In the early days of the Liberty store, sales assistants would wear kimonos.  He had a keen interest in telling people about other cultures, in an educational way.

Kimono - one of a range from the 20's and 30's.  

Lots of cloaks were also produced in the 1920's.

Handwork such as smocking became a feature of Liberty - it was revived.  A smock was a functional garment worn by such as Royalty.

Putting dresses together shows how Liberty's took off in the 1920's and 30's.  The mainstay of business was dress fabrics.  A sense of how people could interact with Liberty can be gained. Professional dressmakers produced their own labels and home sewing also became popular.  People interacted with the fabric in all kinds of ways.  After the First World War there was a move away from Modernism - to create a sense of Englishness, which was comforting.  After World War II, home dressmaking provided a great solution in times of austerity.

During the 1950's, Art Nouveau was revived through a series of exhibitions and Libertys realised that they were sitting on a treasure trove.  The Lotus Collection was developed - the colours used were extraordinary.  Below is a small selection of what they were producing.

A sense of revivalism and retro with a Modernist edge was aimed for, at all different price points.

1960's London was the epicentre of fashionable life and Liberty was located near Carnaby Street. Mary Quant used the fabric for her Ginger Group label.  Jean Muir and also the Dolly Rockers brand used Liberty fabrics in their designs.  Bernard Neville, Liberty Design Director, had associations with The Royal College and many Liberty designers came from there.

In the 1970's Liberty was producing a sense of nostalgia and optimism, a shift back from Futurism. Crafts and a perceived notion of life were revived.  Varuna wools were popular.  Fashion label Cacharel bought millions of yards of fabrics for their collections.

During the 80's, Liberty let the designers Collier Campbell 'do things'.  They produced the Bauhaus print, as a scarf initially and then for furnishing and dress.

Liberty today is just as collaborative with designers.  Zandra Rhodes produced a print for Liberty used for shoes.

Anna Sui has had prints re-coloured for her to suit her style.

Phillip Treacey has used prints for his hats.

For its 140th anniversary, these 2016 Liberty dress fabrics look back on their history and the silk route under new head of design Ed Burstell.  

As I was leaving the exhibition, I took a look around the shop.  I was asked by the sales assistant, what did I enjoy the most?  Put on the spot, I said the 2016 fabrics and the 30's tea dresses.  Maybe that will be something for me to think about in the coming year ...  A historical dress in current fabric.

You can see the exhibition for yourself at The Fashion and Textile Museum, Bermondsey, London, until 28 February 2016.  


  1. Beautiful.. would love to see in person..
    How are you Dianne? Know your busy with all the new things in your life.. Praying for you..
    Pray you have a blessed/happy Christmas.
    Thanks for coming by the blog.

  2. It's a fabulous exhibition Judy and I'm fine thanks. Busy and very happy! So glad to see you here ...


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