After I wrote about the History of Toile, I asked for some requests for other pattern histories. It was a bit of a draw between houndstooth and Liberty – and with the Target collaboration it seems like Liberty is everywhere so it seemed like a good time to dig into the history of Liberty of London and if you’re a houndstooth fan – don’t worry – I’ll tackle it soon! (Let me know if you have any other pattern (or not pattern suggestions) for future Past & Present columns! (See the Past & Present archives here!) And stay tuned for a Liberty of London round-up later today!
Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born in 1843, the son of a draper in Buckinghamshire. He was one of 8 children. Although intelligent, he failed to win a university scholarship and so at age sixteen he took a job working in his uncle’s lace warehouse. Then in 1859, with the help of another uncle, he was apprenticed to a draper – the only positive to this position was that it was in London. Then (as now) one of the most fashionable streets for shopping was Regent Street (no grocers, ironmongers, pubs, butchers, bakers, nor candlestick makers were permitted to set up shop on Regent shop) – it was jewelers, silversmiths and the most fashionable shop for ladies – Farmer & Rogers. Somehow Liberty persuaded the owners to take him on and ended his apprenticeship at the draper.
kimono of the meiji period (1868-1912) from the victoria & albert museum
It all started with the kimono…
Arthur Liberty had become fascinated by Japanese art and design at London’s 1862 International Exhibition – in fact, it was partly his enthusiasm for all things Japanese that convinced Farmer & Rogers to buy up all the available stock from the exhibition to create an Oriental Warehouse department in their store. Within two years, Arthur Liberty was promoted to manager of the Warehouse. All the most stylish ladies in London were crazy for the kimono and Farmer’s & Rogers was the place to get it. It was the most fashionable division of the most fashionable shop and served actors and actresses as well as artists such as Whistler, Rossetti, and E.W. Godwin.
liberty of london store sign – from the 1920s tudor-inspired store
Liberty Opens in 1875
After 10 years as manager of Farmer & Rogers, Liberty asked to be made a partner in the store and was refused. Encouraged by friends (and with £1,000 borrowed from his father-in-law), he opened his own store – East India House – directly across the street. He stocked the familiar Eastern imports – even the shop girls wore kimonos. The shop was an overnight success. Liberty was able to pay his father-in-law back in just eighteen months and have enough money to expand the shop. (Unable to sustain the store without Liberty, Farmer & Rogers closed down shortly after he left.)
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Liberty Begins to Develop New Techniques for Dying Textiles
Although Japanese imports were still in vogue, Liberty was concerned with the their decreasing quality – and so began to look elsewhere for new objects to introduce in his shop. He liked Indian printing techniques but the delicate dyes didn’t wear well and seemed too fragile. So Liberty imported plain, undyed fabrics and had them dyed in the UK with the pastel tints of the East. People just couldn’t get enough.
oscar wilde by napoleon sarony in new york in 1882
Oscar Wilde – Brings the Taste for Liberty Fashion to the American shores
If there’s one individual we should all thank for bringing the fashion for Liberty across the Atlantic – it would be Oscar Wilde. On his 18-month lecture tour of the United States, he frequently lectured on the subject of “House Decoration” – it was the perfect subject to introduce the fashion of the Aesthetic Movement to American audiences.
Liberty Art Fabrics
As early as late 1870s, Liberty began to commission artists and designers to create patterns for fabrics. Because the company was working to develop its own branding, the designers weren’t named but they did include – C.F.A. Voysey, Harry Napper, Jessie M. King and Lindsay Butterfield.
As fashion changed, so did Liberty. In the 1920s a division of Liberty was set up in Paris – Maison Liberty – to add a French flair to the costume department. (The Maison Liberty closed during the economic crisis of the 1930s). Today the British firm seems to be all about a global-level of collaboration – Liberty of London for Target, 10 corso como, M.A.C. Cosmetics and Merci. Whew! What I’d love to see is a Liberty of London New York! Can somebody make that happen?! Stay tuned for the Liberty of London round-up!
Books to Read!
Liberty of London: Masters of Style & Decoration by Stephen Calloway – Stephen Calloway, curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, edited this collection of essays for an in-depth look at Liberty of London. It’s a great resource. My only complaint is that I wish there had been more color photographs – there’s a lot of black and white – and with a company so color-centric, it feels like you’re missing out by not seeing the full color.
Facts to Know!
- When Paul Poiret, that famous French designer of the early 20th century, opened his fashion house in Paris, in 1903, he used Liberty fabrics.
- Arthur Lazenby Liberty was knighted in 1913 for his role in promoting the decorative arts in the U.K.