Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917), the Liberty & Co’s founder, was the son of a small provincial draper. From 1862, his initial business and aesthetic experiences were at Farmer and Rogers’ Oriental Warehouse, Regent Street that specialised in fashionable Kashmir shawls and oriental goods.
The first Liberty & Co.’s small shop opened in 1875 on Regent Street in London’s emergent West End. Gradually, it grew into a showcase for cosmopolitan goods, and the company became synonymous with exotic and avant-garde design. In particular, Liberty garments were mostly associated with the Aesthetic movement.
At Liberty’s, Middle Eastern and Asian goods predominantly determined the character of the store. The shop was sympathetic to Arts and Crafts ideals that rejected factory production but favoured handcraft and tried to beautify everyday things; Liberty’s ambition became the reform of dress and home furnishings along artistic lines. As a businessman, he came up with ways of supplying an expanding market with exotic, handmade goods in a retail environment evoking an oriental souk and bazaar rather than a conventional department store.
Liberty’s early catalogues were published from 1881 and featured silks remarkable for their variety of colour, print and weight. By the 1880s, Liberty’s name had become a trademark. “Liberty Art Fabrics”; were sensuous and subtly coloured, widely admired and unfortunately imitated. All fashionable aniline dyes were rejected in favour of natural colourings; lack of chemical adulteration, antiquity of design, and irregularity of weave, indicating hand production were extremely emphasised.
In the beginning, dyed and printed silks were imported from India, but later silks were dyed and hand-printed in England, mostly by Thomas Wardle. Other companies contracted by Liberty included G. P. and J. Baker, David Barbour, Arthur H. Lee and Sons, Alexander Morton and Co; Turnbull and Stockdale, and Warner and Sons. In other cases, leading designers were used anonymously by Liberty. Most of the textile printing was assigned to Edmund Littler at Merton, just upstream from Morris and Co.’s workshops. In 1904, Liberty bought Edmund Morton, and they continued on with hand printing with wooden blocks until 1960.
In the early days, most of the Liberty textiles were inspired by the Middle East and Asia, but by the 1890s, they gained a more contemporary look, with Lasenby Liberty expressing a dislike for its more extreme forms – Art Nouveau was dubbed Stile Liberty in Italy. “Oriental” designs continued to sell well in the 1920s and 1930s; small floral patterns also became associated with Liberty fabrics, which then included a huge variety of natural and synthetic materials.
Cloth and Costume
All Liberty fabrics were renowned for their softness with artists appreciating their draping qualities. Liberty’s early dress designs utilised this tendency to follow the contours of the body. However, this was perceived as a challenge to propriety, especially when used in at-home garments such as the tea gown, pioneered by Liberty and others. Early catalogues are also illustrated with vignettes of women in exotic or classical costumes. In some shops, the assistants wore unusual dress; even as early as the 1930s, shop-walkers wore medievally inspired velvet gowns. Due to their uniqueness, Liberty’s “artistic” styles were imitated and caricatured, notably by the cartoonist George du Maurier.
In 1884, a Costume Department was established in Liberty to design and make garments suited to the fabrics; eclecticism predominated over fashionable dress. The products that followed reflected Lasenby Liberty’s determination to control the whole process of design, production and retailing. E. W. Godwin, architect was the consultant designer until his death in 1886. Although his earlier designs were notably Japoniste, classical models, the principles of dress reform inspired Godwin’s later ideas about dress.
In essence, Liberty designs repulsed the dominance of Paris originated styles, with only the successful branch being maintained there from 1890 to 1932. In this bid, the company pioneered the unstructured cut of Asian clothing as a means of liberating women from their corsets. An example is the Tokaido which was described in the company’s 1884 catalogue as a “Japanese robe arranged as a tea gown.” The catalogue also had other popular garments such as the Burnous cloak that was derived from North Africa, and the Greek-inspired tea gown Hera, (1901-1909) that attempted to promote classical “Greek” dress well even after Godwin’s death.
In their fashion absorbed dress-reform principles, Liberty’s designs were less eccentric. At around 1925, a Kimono style floral-print coat, reminiscent of designs by the French couturier Paul Poiret, became very fashionable. Poiret to some extent used Liberty fabrics in his couture business and, but following its demise, he designed four collections for Liberty in the 1930s. Starting from the 1880s, Liberty indulged in promoting “Artistic Dress for Children,” which was inspired by the drawings of Kate Greenaway; a notable example is the “Liberty Smock”.
The Liberty Home
Over time, Liberty slowly developed a reputation for furnishing fabrics, curtains, bedspreads, and upholstery. They created a furniture department that was supported by its own workshops and opened in 1880 under the supervision of Leonard F. Wyburd. In its beginnings, Liberty imported goods from countries seen as “exotic” and pre-industrial, producing handmade, but relatively inexpensive, furniture and artifacts. In his times, Lasenby Liberty travelled widely, especially in Japan, to experience their production firsthand. His shrewd business skills instructed him to innovate, but he lacked the scruples about modifying designs for the home market, developing hybrid, Anglo-oriental artifacts and other ersatz styles, incorporating Arts and Crafts, Celtic, Tudor, Art Nouveau and oriental elements. Along the way, Liberty also invested significantly in small companies producing ceramics, metalwork, and jewellery.
Between the 1920s and 1930s, Liberty goods evolve a little; in spite of traditional English values being favoured after both World Wars. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the company greatly redefined itself as a contemporary and European outlet by commissioning work from world-class designers. From 1962 and on, Bernard Nevill brought in a new era of distinguished textile design, with dress reflecting the exuberance of the fabrics. With ethnic and revivalist styles becoming fashionable in the late 1960s and 1970s, Liberty accepted the exotic and Art Nouveau heritage they had earlier rejected.
Other Liberty artists
Liberty was hugely prolific and his design motifs spanned the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Celtic Revival and Modernism creating a style that was uniquely and recognisably as his. In 1899, Liberty & Co exhibited their first small collection of silverware and jewellery, designed by Knox but bearing the company’s own assay mark. This marked the beginning of the Cymric collection, a range of pieces made by machine in sterling silver and hand-finished. This was followed three years later by Tudric, a collection that was made in pewter to make it more widely affordable. These pieces were decorated with enamel, in especially the peacock-like shades of blues and greens, and a range of stylised flora and fauna patterns, Celtic knots and Art Nouveau whiplash lines. Liberty contracted many other designers such as Jessie M King, Mary Watts, Oliver Baker and Fleetwood Varley. These artists ensured that the store remained at the forefront of artistic style and design during the first two decades of the 20th Century. Oscar Wilde said that the shop was “the chosen resort of the artistic shopper” and today the jewellery and silverware produced by Liberty & Co. during this period are highly sought after and valued.
The Liberty Company stayed in family ownership until 2000 when the store was modernised, making the fabrics and oriental goods became less prominent. Greater emphasis was laid on luxury accessories, furnishing, and idiosyncratic fashion by major international designers.