Liberty Art Fabrics and Fashion
- Susan Mansfield
- 3 August 2018
A history of the iconic label that will leave fashionistas drooling
It's now 140 years since Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened his emporium on London's Regent Street and began writing his own peculiarly British chapter on fabric design. This exhibition, adapted from a show at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London, explores this history, one dress at a time.
Liberty began life as an importer of fabrics from the Far East, feeding the desire among British aesthetes for all things oriental, and quickly realised there was money to be made by printing similar designs at home, in more affordable fabrics.As the market grew for comfortable, loose-fitting dresses, in the early years of the 20th century, he added a dressmaking department too. It was during the inter-war years that the classic Liberty fabrics emerged: finely patterned florals which were made into tea dresses and house-coats. At a time when people felt they needed reassurance, Liberty spoke of stability and better days.
A very different style was needed to seize the zeitgeist in the 1950s, and the house designers reworked Art Nouveau curtains and upholstery designs into dress fabrics in psychedelic colours. These vivid tones and bold patterns continued through the 1960s, beloved of designers such as Mary Quant and Jean Muir (whose first job was as a stockroom assistant at Liberty). But in the tricky years of the 1970s, it was time for more nostalgia, and the brand returned to its archive to re-vamp soft florals for use in the floaty peasant dresses of Annabelinda, amongst other designers.
The decades since have seen Liberty fabrics maintain a presence in the fashion industry, rather than leading the design field. But, just when they might have seemed to lose their edge, in walked Richard Quinn, stealing fashion headlines with his clashes and innovations.
The story of Liberty Art Fabrics and Fashion is a story of repeated reinvention: how a winning idea can work, and work again, as times and fashions change. If 100 dresses isn't your idea of fun, this show isn't for you, but anyone who loves vintage clothes will be drooling before they're halfway round.
Dovecot Studios, until 12 Jan 2019, £9 (£7).