From William Morris to Anna Wintour: How Liberty made an art out of fashion

Art Nouveau fashion using  'Constantia', a 1961 Liberty print, photograph from 'Liberty and Co. in the Fifties and  Sixties', published by Antiques Collectors Club

Art Nouveau fashion using ‘Constantia’, a 1961 Liberty print, photograph from ‘Liberty and Co. in the Fifties and Sixties’, published by Antiques Collectors Club ( Liberty London. )

“This is about the art of dressing.” This is how curator Kate Grenyer describes Liberty: Art Fabrics & Fashion, which is more than 100 Liberty projects exhibited at the Dovecot Gallery in Edinburgh. The show’s opening coincides with the annual Edinburgh Festival, which includes fabrics and clothing from the London company’s 143-year history.

The Dovecot exhibition evolved from an exhibition originally held at the Fashion and Textile Museum in 2015. However, the Edinburgh Gallery presents a variety of new content and some obvious Scottish twists and turns, telling the story of this much-loved fashion brand, whose iconic print is a piece of art itself.

The first is to make Glaswegian designer Marion Donaldson the focus. Despite the lack of memory of Biba’s Barbara Hulani, Donaldson pioneered one of the UK’s most successful swinging 60s brands and brought London’s psychedelic style to the northern border. One of the highlights of the show is Donaldson’s own typical sixties wedding dress, made from blue paisley, with a mini skirt, and wearing fishnet tights and knee-high boots on the big day.

A 1960 Liberty silk and satin embroidered kaftan (Liberty London. Image courtesy Fashion & Textile Museum)

The company named after Donaldson became Liberty’s largest customer in the UK, using its unique floral and other print designs to help create the trend of instant recognition in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The most surprising thing is that Donaldson did it without any formal fashion and design training, starting with a kitchen table for just £50.

Dovecot’s second major achievement was the presentation of contemporary designers with similar careers in the stratosphere. Richard Quinn founded his brand after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2016, but Grayer described his career as “extraordinary” so far, and she is not wrong: he recently attended Amet Clooney to participate in Met Gala.

He may now be the only fashion designer who can attribute Anna Wintour and the Queen of England to his fans (he won the Queen Elizabeth II Award and they were ranked next to Quinn’s London Fashion Week show.

Queen Elizabeth II sits next to Anna Wintour as they view Richard Quinn’s runway show in February (Getty)

After digitally operating Liberty printing for use in his MA program, Quinn was invited by the company to use their files. His professional debut was held at a prestigious store in London, and in July 2018, Quinn and Liberty’s accessories line went on sale.

Like other flower-loving British brands, Erdem, Quinn’s business cards can make this traditional element of the British fashion tradition fresh, modern, and in the case of Quinn, it is avant-garde and even bold. It’s also worth noting that Quinn’s fashion design is a fashion type that tends to be closer to sculpture or modern art work (seeing HRH wearing his hound teeth Lycra gimp suit would be fun – obviously this is her real scarves pro).
This exhibition emphasizes the intersection between art and fashion. Grenyer enthusiastically talked about the first connection between Liberty and the late Victorian arts and crafts movement, and how these fabrics became “the anti-establishment of the artist’s conversation at the time.”

Arthur Lasenby Liberty founded his own company in 1875. The brand’s initial success was attributed to the obsession with Japan and China in this era, which can be seen as a clear trend in fabrics and jewellery in furniture and painting.

Ianthe’ print c1902, originally by French Art Nouveau designer R Beauclair and redrawn by David Haward’s Studio (Liberty London)

Most notably, the Victorian Libertys collaborated with William Morris, who designed some of the most iconic Liberty prints. Here, Dovecot also has a neat link, as the studio’s founding weavers studied their craft at the Morris Merton Abbey studio in Wimbledon. The first wave of free fabrics coincided with the famous art costume movement, which saw women relaxing corsets, corsets and waists, in favor of rolling, free-flowing style, decades later, when the 1970s hippies Occupy the free printing cellar.
In the Morris era, art and fashion were inextricably linked, encouraging women to find inspiration for the new styles of the pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic paintings, which are full of revelations of medieval Europe and ancient Greece.

And not to mention the connection between Liberty and Art Nouveau (in Italy, the word “Stile Liberty” is actually used to describe the Art Nouveau style), Liberty and Bauhaus, Liberty and Pop Art…

However, Edinburgh’s exhibition also shows another connection between contemporary art and freedom. Throughout Dovecot, visitors to the gallery can see a series of sculptures by Lucy Wayman.

Liberty of London department store in 1925 (Liberty London)

Welsh artists specialize in fascinating tactile artwork made with craftsmanship, including weaving, knotting and lace. As a result, Wayman was invited to respond to a part of the Liberty exhibition in the 1970s (the era of lace, crochet and other similar craftsmanship).

Let the artist now respond to clothes made using Liberty’s design – a brand that traditionally responds to the art movement – creating a perfect call and response loop between fashion and art. This is also the way Dovecot is familiar as a company, not a way.

The Dovecot studio was founded in 1912 by Bute Marquess and was later used in the Edinburgh Tapestry Company. As with fashion, craft practices such as weaving are sometimes difficult to consider as “art.” But Dovecot’s output – just like Liberty – is amazing. If you need proof, just make a “butterfly” tapestry for Scottish opera by Google Alison Watt. Dovecot also works directly with many other artists, including David Hockney and R B Kitaj.

The relevance of the Liberty exhibition to Dovecot can also be felt in other ways. Together with Donaldson, the show features Jean Muir’s design. She was born in London, but her father is from Aberdeen, and the Jean Muir file is owned by the National Museum of Scotland.

Muir began working in Liberty’s storage room and was promoted to a sketch design. After that, she opened her own company, but continued to use Liberty fabrics in her designs. In fact, the Fashion Museum’s 1964 annual dress award was presented to Moore, and this piece comes from something else – free silk.

One of the most impressive things about Liberty is its longevity. For more than a century after Arthur Silver designed the famous “Peacock” print, Liberty collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent, Loewe, Susie Cave’s cult organization The Vampire’s Wife. Grenyer mentioned that it can “reshape itself for every generation”.

An archive Liberty design by Bernard Nevill (Liberty London Fabrics. )

So what does Liberty mean? This means we still can’t get enough stuff – and, do we really want to use it to fill our art gallery? “Quality” is Grenyer’s constant return: the quality of the fabric, the quality of the print and the quality of the subsequent design.

Liberty dresses don’t have any disposables; the brand is almost exactly the opposite of “fast fashion,” despite the fact that it has managed to maintain its trend. Maybe this is because Liberty is always fashionable… but it is always art.



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