Sunday, 13 December 2015

Liberty in Fashion

Last week I spent a few days in London. In between getting to handle a real, actual Fortuny dress at Kerry Taylor Auctions (I may have stopped breathing at some point!) and attempting to empty Goldhawk Road of fabric (thanks to Marie of A Stitching Odyssey for alerting me to this treasure trove), I went to the current exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum; Liberty in Fashion.

Drawing of the Liberty shop in London, unfortunately I forgot to note the artist

Warning: picture-heavy post ahead.

Liberty was founded in 1875, and the exhibition explores its impact on British fashion in the 140 years of its existence. The first room contained some of the oldest garments on display, and was the only one with display cases, so apologies for the occasional reflection.

Embroidered satin collar, c 1895

Court dress of Spitalfields silk brocade, 1907

Silk afternoon dress, c 1910

Close-up of silk and embroidered net cloak, c 1910

The next section covered Liberty's beginnings as an Oriental Bazaar, with clothing and fabrics imported from the Far East.

Devoré velvet burnous, c 1910

Display in the 'Dialogue With the East' section

Silk kimono, 1920s, with the Collier Campbell fabric it inspired

Liberty became associated with the Aesthetic movement, and the looser way of dressing that this embraced. These simpler garments tended to be decorated with embroidery, rather than frills or lace.

Silk crepe de chine dress, c 1910

Rayon jacket, 1920s

Jacket close-up, showing embroidery

Like George Henry Lee in Liverpool, Liberty produced its own collections inspired by the famous couture houses. Tucked away in a case I found these sketches, which would have been sent out to clients for approval.

1950s working sketches from the Liberty workrooms

Embroidery wasn't the only traditional craft which Liberty supported; it was also strongly associated with smocked dresses.

Traditional linen smock (L) and silk smock, both c 1910

The next section covered the delicate floral prints of the inter-war period, still considered by many to be the archetypal Liberty print.

Dresses from the 1930s and 1940s

Silk georgette dress, 1930s

Then it was onto something far brighter. In the late 1950s there was a re-evaluation of the Art Nouveau movement, which prompted Liberty to redraw a number of patterns from its archive in more vivid shades. These were used for both dress fabrics and clothes sold by Liberty.

Early 1960s clothes made from Liberty fabrics

Mid and late 1960s
Then, after all that colour. . .

I had forgotten (or possibly deliberately blanked from my memory) just how, well, brown the 1970s were. This display brought it all back.

Brown, brown, brown, and yet more brown

And there's more. But at least with a dash of red

The next section, on collaborations with designers, showed how since the 1990s Liberty fabrics have been used in clothing literally from top to toe.

A Philip Treacy hat (and an excellent shadow), 2000

Tweed and Tana lawn, Cacharel, 2004

Footwear by Jimmy Choo and Nike, 1999 and 2015

The final display contained fabrics from Liberty's newest collection, inspired by the Silk Road.

Clothes, fabrics, rugs and lanterns echo Liberty's beginnings as an Oriental Bazaar

One final picture, which has nothing to do with the exhibition. The Fashion and Textile Museum is in Bermondsey, in central London, just south of the Thames. In the nineteenth century the area was mainly docks and slums, and featured in Oliver Twist. Now there is a lot of new development going on, most notably the 95-storey skyscraper known as The Shard. All this makes for some interesting juxtapositions. I have no idea why the shutters of this building are painted in so many colours, it seems unlikely that it's by design, but I loved the contrast of the Dickensian foreground and the shiny modernity behind.

Old and new in south London


  1. How neat that you got to handle a Fortuny gown! Love the sketches!

    1. It was amazing. One thing which really struck me was that no photograph can do justice to the richness of the colour of those dresses. The silk was dyed multiple times, and you can tell.