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Liberty at 140

While retailers have come and gone, Liberty has endured, somehow always in fashion. A glance through some of the brand’s iconic designs is both inspiring and something of a nostalgia trip – many of Liberty’s prints sum up certain eras in fashion, and have been a regular fixture on clothing and home furnishings for decades.

The store first opened in 1875 selling coloured silks, but quickly diversified into cashmere, lacquerware, oriental goods and furniture. It was popular from the off, attracting artists and aesthetes including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frederic Leighton, Oscar Wilde, Dame Ellen Terry and James McNeill. The Liberty dress department then opened in 1884 and Liberty fashion look was born.

Liberty’s trick has been to constantly evolve with the changing tastes while maintaining its identity – it is this that makes the store such a popular destination for fashion fans today, despite stiff competition from trendier brands such as Selfridges or Harvey Nichols. The show at the Fashion and Textile Museum tracks its history through its designs, from the floral prints developed in the 1920s and 30s, to the textiles made popular in the 1960s and 70s by designers such as Mary Quant and Jean Muir, to the world of Liberty today.

The exhibition also features a large number of historical Liberty garments, including a 1890s cape constructed from embroidered Chinese shawls, a 1930s Paul Poiret pink silk robe, and a late 1960s dress in the Macedonia print, made famous by Yves Saint Laurent who used it in his first maxi skirt. Alongside these will be recent collaborations with brands including Vivienne Westwood and Nike.

Top: Hera print, designed by the Silver Studio. One of the best-known Liberty designs, it was first sold at the store in 1887; Eustacia print, 1960, both images © Liberty Fabric Ltd
Top: Hera print, designed by the Silver Studio. One of the best-known Liberty designs, it was first sold at the store in 1887; Eustacia print, 1960, both images © Liberty Fabric Ltd
Whirlygig print, designed by Colleen Farr for Liberty & co, 1960, © Liberty Fabric Ltd
Whirlygig print, designed by Colleen Farr for Liberty & Co, 1960, © Liberty Fabric Ltd
Exterior of Liberty & Co, Regent Street, London, c. early 20th century, © Liberty London
Exterior of Liberty & Co, Regent Street, London, c. early 20th century, © Liberty London
Liberty store central atrium, 1930s, © Liberty London
Liberty store central atrium, 1930s, © Liberty London
Liberty fabrics were block-printed by hand. Here a Merton printer is seen topping the wood block onto the the fabric to ensure an even print of the repeat. Image courtesy Carlton Publishing group
Liberty fabrics were block-printed by hand. Here a Merton printer is seen topping the wood block onto the the fabric to ensure an even print of the repeat. Check out the tattoos. Image courtesy Carlton Publishing Group
Cocktail dress by American designer Arnold Scaasi, using Liberty fabric ‘Eustacia’, 1961, © Fashion Museum Bath
Cocktail dress by American designer Arnold Scaasi, using Liberty fabric ‘Eustacia’, 1961, © Fashion Museum Bath
Art Nouveau fashion using Constantia, 1961, © Liberty London
Art Nouveau fashion using Constantia, 1961, © Liberty London
Modern Paisley Style Design by Ceraggio for Liberty, 1960, © Liberty Fabric Limited
Modern Paisley Style Design by Ceraggio for Liberty, 1960, © Liberty Fabric Limited
Bengal, Bernard Nevill for Liberty and Co on silk, 1969, © Liberty Fabric Limited
Bengal, Bernard Nevill for Liberty and Co on silk, 1969, © Liberty Fabric Limited
Nike SS2011 Storybook collection, © Carlton Books
Nike SS2011 Storybook collection, © Carlton Books

A must visit for Liberty fans especially, but also for wider devotees of fashion and design too, the Fashion and Textile Museum show will run until February 28. More info is at ftmlondon.org.

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