Fashionistas, culture fans or anyone in need of some new season printspiration should pay a visit to London’s Fashion and Textile Museum which is currently playing host to the first major retrospective of everyone’s favourite department store: Liberty. Much in the news of late thanks to a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary, it’s easy to overlook the role the store played in fashion history – one that goes far beyond those signature floral prints. Let me introduce you to this season’s most stylish exhibition: Liberty in Fashion.
It all started in London in 1875, when Arthur Lasenby Liberty started selling exotic, coloured silks imported from the Far East. After realising there was money to be made in fabric, he swiftly expanded the range to include cashmere, lacquerware, oriental goods and furniture. Liberty & Co. became one of the city’s hottest fashion destinations, attracting the attention of the artistic set – everyone from Oscar Wilde to Dante Gabriel Rossetti wanted to wear Liberty. A dress department opened in 1884, and the ‘Liberty’ look was born. Arthur Liberty’s dream to create new fashion, rather than follow existing styles, was to become a reality.
Most of the garments in the exhibition come from the private collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield. What’s interesting is the scope – designer pieces from Mary Quant, Foale and Tuffin, Jeff Banks and Cacharel sit alongside homemade garments with neatly stitched seams and carefully placed buttons. These aren’t catwalk showpieces, rather clothes designed for a (well-dressed) everyday life.
The ‘Liberty’ look has defied the whims of the fashion industry for decades. Grouped chronologically, recurring themes run throughout the exhibition – and it’s not just the prints, which have endured in various iterations since their introduction in the years before WWI. Smocking – a technique originally found on the clothes of agricultural labourers – was reimagined by the company and became an identifying trademark, a motif that conjoured up the romanticism of rural ideals. The detail appears on a group of children’s garments (designed by illustrator and author Kate Greenaway) that date back to 1910 Later in the exhibition, the same detail appears on a Sally Tuffin dress from 1975.
But it’s not all boho-chic. Round the corner from the smocked children’s garments is a vibrant collection of Art Nouveau-inspired pieces, rendered in shades of jade and lime green, hot pink, pillar box red and deep amethyst. The movement enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1950s, following a series of exhibitions that celebrated the style. The Liberty studio, quick to realise the potential of their own archive, reissued a selection of patterns rendered in a bold palette. The textiles paved the way for the retro style now more commonly associated with the 1960s and 1970s. Plundering tradition to create something new? Arthur would’ve been proud.
The old style/new ways idea continues upstairs in a section dedicated to collaborations. There, designers and brands from Jimmy Choo to Anna Sui and, of course, Nike, have reimagned the Liberty style across everything from demure tweed shift dresses to cotton suits and Roshe Ones. Clearly, tradition never goes out of style.
Liberty in Fashion is at the Fashion and Textile Museum until February 28th, 2016 . For more information and to book tickets, see the Fashion and Textile Museum’s website.