Liberty: Story Of A Superbrand
The name — now known for its bonkers black-and-white mock-Tudor store and luxurious, deep-purple 'can you tell I've spent a lot?' shopping bags — is 140 years old this year. What might it look like to distil all those years of history, economic and social change, not to mention textile and technological advances, into one museum show? The answer: a lot of dresses.
Liberty started out as a business selling imported textiles, furniture, ceramics and decorative objects from 218a Regent Street in 1875. The end of Japan's self-imposed isolation in the 1850s meant Japanese goods were hugely popular. Arthur Liberty's Oriental Bazaar caught that fever: the brand's tradition of importing and selling articles from Japan, China and the Middle East continued throughout the 20th century. These then-exotic links shine through in the shapes and textiles of the clothes on display: the kimonos and dressing gowns from the turn of the century are gorgeous.
Alongside orientalism came aestheticism: the idea that women didn't have to wear corsets and frills must have seemed revolutionary at the time. Now, the unstructured Arts and Crafts and art nouveau 'Liberty look' silhouettes of the 1910s and 1920s hold a fascinating mirror up to the artistic tastes of middle and upper-class women of the time. There's a fantastic display of smocking, one of the traditional skills Liberty helped revive alongside the Arts and Crafts movement.
The exhibition also traces the history of the archetypal 'Liberty print'. Time and time again, there are delicate floral patterns, increasing in the clothes created in the inter-war period. In the 1920s, shoppers preferred prints on a dark background; it was in the more romantic 1930s where pastel shades on lighter bases became the brand's signature look.
Upstairs the show moves through to the 60s and 70s; the former a brilliant shock of colour and 'new' shapes, the latter almost frighteningly 'nostalgic' and flouncy. At this stage, we felt the exhibition rather missed or rushed the 80s and 90s (a difficult period in the brand's history should surely be documented) before concluding with some fun collaborations with brands like Nike and Jimmy Choo from this century. After the overwhelming number of dresses (more than 150 in total), it was quite a relief to see some trainers.
It's a packed show, and the overall impression is one of a superbrand clinging onto what it does best as the world changes around it. There's something intensely 'Liberty' about nearly everything on display, which must be a testament to the skill of curators Dennis Nothdruft and Liberty archivist Anna Buruma. We'd like to have seen a more dispassionate dissection of the brand's history; knowing about the failures and flops would surely enrich the story. But fans of women's fashion will certainly find plenty of treasures to admire.
Liberty in Fashion runs at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street SE1 3XF, until 28 February 2016. £9 adults/£7 concessions/£6 students. Children under 12 are free. There's also a series of special events to accompany the exhibition.
Last Updated 09 October 2015