My introduction to the English textile company, Liberty of London came by way of my Mom. On a trip to London in 1981, she re-discovered Liberty fabrics and fell hard for their children’s clothing: tight little flower prints, Peter Pan collars, and smocked dresses. As a little girl if it was a “fancy” occasion, it was more than likely that I’d be in Liberty party dress!
So just imagine my delight when I came across a vintage Liberty print day dress online for my grown-up self. I had to have her, and not just because she was made with a Liberty fabric, but the dress checked all the boxes for me. It was late ’70s/early ’80s fit and flare day dress with long sleeves in an awesome autumnal color scheme, and a slightly bohemian vibe.
The dress arrived and as predicted it was swooooon worthy but that wasn’t all – she was in amazing shape. The fabric was fresh, the pattern was still crisp, the covered buttons were in tact…and the trim? Pristine. At that exact moment, I decided that I would wear her for my first official post on the Upper East Styler.
I also began to wonder about the history behind the famous company name. Was there a Mr. Liberty? And if so, who was he? I decided to find out.
What I discovered was most unexpected. As it turns out Arthur Lasenby Liberty (just like yours truly) was a free spirit dedicated to exposing his customers to beautiful fabrics and objets from unexpected sources. Though trained as a draper, Liberty got his start in the Import business. Capitalizing on Britain’s great interest in Asian culture, Arthur set up shop in London selling objets and fabrics from the Far East. Not long after he began to produce his own fabrics, Mr. Liberty was an early supporter of the first type of outsider art. In fact, the name Liberty is synonymous with the Art Nouveau style. It is said that Arthur Liberty was the most influential person in the entire Nouveau movement. He employed many of the great artisans of the time, including William Morris. Morris’s designs are still being sold today. His most famous design for Liberty, “The Strawberry Thief,” is indicative of the style that became known as Liberty Style.
What I love most about the man was his involvement and support of the early Feminist Movement through the Artistic Dress Movement. Also called the Free Dress Movement, Reform Dress Movement and Aesthetic Dress Movement, the Artistic Dress Movement was literally the loosening of clothes and underpinnings that literally and figuratively constricted Victorian women.
Early Feminists argued that it was unhealthy to wear the oppressive undergarments and structured dresses of the time. Female (and male) reformers looked to the pre-Raphaelite painters for inspiration. Drawing from the artist’s depictions of Ancient Greece, and particularly the statue of the Venus de Milo, it was argued that the flowing dresses, column draping, and empire waists which highlighted a woman’s natural silhouette were far more beautiful than the oversized petticoats, crinolines, boning and rib crushing corsets that were the standard of the time. These relaxed frocks came to be known as Artist Dresses.
The main supplier of fabrics for the Artist Dresses was Liberty of London. The silks produced and imported by Arthur Liberty were the ideal materials for these types of dresses. These lighter tones were reflective of hues seen in nature and came to be known as Art Colors.
In 1884, Liberty directed his employee and a fellow reformer, Edwin Godwin, to start producing ready-made Artist dresses. Well before Yves Saint Laurent opened his ready to wear line, Arthur Liberty was bringing approachable every-day fashion to Main Street.
Which brings me to Liberty and Main Street today, it turns out that Liberty of London is still in the business of supplying fabrics to emerging and established designers like the dresses below. As fashion is cyclical, and in the spirit of “everything that’s old is new again,” it makes me quite happy to see that the vintage Liberty dress I fell in love with is still in great company today.