How are designs for fashion relevant to cultural heritage? Perhaps because their use shows how embracing alternative goals – like making money – can supplant and distort an artist’s vision. Guest author Mariam Hale shines a light on the difference between the intentions of artists of the past and the cynical realities of today, raising questions about the way a fashion conglomerate has appropriated a 19th century artist’s vision. There are too few conversations about what past artists would think about the use of their work many years later. Here is one of them.
Betrayal is the New Black
This season, the fashion brand H&M has introduced new motifs to their modish designs for womenswear. The “new” element is actually a new-old element, a design feature seized from the 19th century and re- purposed in the 21st. H&M is selling dresses, skirts, and suits printed with patterns designed by Morris & Co.
Morris & Co. was, and remains, perhaps the single most influential decorative arts company in British art history. First established as Morris, Marshall, Faulker & Co. in 1861, then re-configured as Morris & Co. some time later, the company was from the first intended as a revolutionary enterprise.
Its founders included not only the polymath William Morris, but some of the era’s greatest artists: the painters Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Ford Madox Brown, and the architect Philip Webb. All were men of great artistic talent and high ambition. To them, the medieval era was the golden age of British craftsmanship. Their hope was to revolutionize British art in the home, by introducing into modern design the qualities that they believed had been lost since the Middle Ages.
William Morris’s designs were radical from the start. In their day, the market was glutted with florals and gilding, knobs and tassels, overstuffed chairs and drooping swags of arsenic-green curtaining. Morris & Co. brought out simple chairs and tables based on the timeless simplicity of country cottage furnishings, and drapes and wallpapers printed by hand from woodblocks. Morris’s designs, and those of his apprentice John Henry Dearle, were inspired by illuminated missals, Persian pottery, and their own passion for natural beauty, simply drawn. They were printed in gentle colors: sage green, terra-cotta, robin’s-egg blue, and ivory-yellow. Their shades derived not from the newly introduced and noxious chemical dyes, but from natural sources, and the tints were soon acclaimed as the only truly “artistic” colors for the home.
Morris’s belief, and that of his colleagues, was that if the most essential elements in a person’s home were beautiful, they could lead lives of simplicity made beautiful and happy by the good design of every object around them. In an age when the height of taste was a mantelpiece packed with gimcrackery and rooms choked with furniture, Morris proposed the now-famous maxim: “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Morris despised the wastage consequent to cheap manufacturing standards, which produced chairs that peeled and broke after a few years’ use, and wallpapers that fell to pieces on the walls. He was upset by the rapid pace of fashion trends of home decoration. A dining table ought to be an object of sufficient quality and beauty to be kept for a lifetime, and passed down through the family. It shouldn’t be made with glue and cheap deal wood, to be eaten off for a season and then disposed of.
In Morris’s time, Victorian London was full of pushing, relentless salesmen working out of thousands of cheap furniture shops. These workshops churned out over-elaborate, rapidly-made and even more rapidly outmoded furnishings for the new middle class. Against this wave of non-stop consumerism, Morris advocated for minimalism and for sound investment in good materials and good design.
Morris’s ideals had implications beyond the aesthetic. In modeling his workshops after his idealized medieval predecessors, he adopted not only the designs and colors of an earlier age, but also their work ethic. Morris hated, more than anything, the modern industrial manufacturing system. An environmentalist and a Socialist as well as an artist and scholar, he abhorred the pollution poured out by modern factories and decried the miserable oppression and exploitation of their workers.
The monumentally influential art critic John Ruskin had already introduced into Victorian discourse the idea that medieval workshops had been liberal, even egalitarian places, where every workman, from the architect to the stonemason, had had dignity and the freedom to work creatively. Ruskin wrote, and Morris believed, that a factory labor system that forced its workers to behave like machines, and separated the most powerful people from physical labor entirely, was bad for all of society. Factory laborers, performing the same actions over and over, destroyed not only their health but also their capacity for happiness and independent thought. Living in idleness gained through oppression crippled the intellects of the rich, who disdained ordinary working men.
Morris accepted Ruskin’s reading of the factory system and put his ideas into practice as much as possible. Morris’s own workshops were built outside of London, where the air was cleaner, and he made use of natural materials and natural dyes, to avoid poisoning his own workers or contaminating nearby rivers. Every procedure performed by his employees Morris could do as well. He taught himself to embroider, to weave, and to print papers and fabrics. Morris & Co. also employed and trained many talented women, and produced and sold their original designs. Lucy Orrinsmith, an author and professional embroiderer was one; William’s daughter, May Morris, was another.
When not at work designing furnishings, composing poetry, or writing fantasy novels that would one day inspire both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Morris was a lecturer and a labor rights activist. He called for better wages and treatment for English laborers, and for greater consideration of the environmental impact of manufacturing. In 1884, he founded his own activist society, the Socialist League, and was once arrested for fighting with a police officer at a political rally. Notably, he also opposed British colonial policy in India.
There was one way in which Morris failed to live up to his own ideals. His goal, in founding Morris & Co., had been to transform popular decorating and the lifestyles of the common people of England. However, because of the costly processes by which he produced his furnishings, only the upper-middle and elite classes could afford to purchase them. Much of Morris’s energies as an artist went into designing special commissions from some of the richest people in England. Because he would not compromise his principles as either an employer or an artist, his works were never as universally accessible as he wanted them to be. It is a quandary familiar to environmentalists and economists today, or to anyone who has ever compared the prices of organic, local fruits and vegetables to those for conventionally grown imported produce in their grocery store. Shopping ‘responsibly’ simply isn’t an option for the majority of people, who have to compromise their values in order to live.
And so we come to H&M, whose clothing is, at least, affordable for a large segment of the population of the countries where it is sold, worldwide. In fact, H&M clothing is almost too affordable. In 2016, The Guardian reported that although wastage numbers had dropped since the last study, UK households still threw away several hundred thousand tons of clothes every year. The year before, The Telegraph publicized a study showing that one in three women buy clothes which they wear only once, or only a few times, before discarding them. Meanwhile, there are plenty of outfits that never even make it to the stores. A power station in Sweden produces its energy, not by solar or wind power, but by burning “defective” H&M clothes. Because falling in-store sales have left millions of pieces of clothing sitting in warehouses, some of H&M’s unsold but perfectly wearable clothes will also be heading for the flames, or at least the landfill.
So much for the consumption side of H&M clothing. Their record as manufacturers provides a dramatic contrast to Morris’s ideals.
In 2010, twenty-one Bangladeshi factory workers died when a fire swept through the factory where they were at work making knitwear for H&M.
In 2016, two Swedish researchers discovered that H&M were regularly employing children in their factories in Myanmar. In the same year, The Sun reported that H&M workers in Cambodia were underfed, overworked to the point of collapse, and paid less than the local minimum wage.
In 2018, an independent study of H&M laborers in four countries found that all were paid less than a living wage, and that many were working inhumanly long hours in order to support their families.
So it raises questions about whether William Morris’s ideals were honored when in 2018, Morris & Co., gave permission to H&M to use the artist’s patterns.
The Morris & Co. brand (owned since 1940 by Arthur Sanderson & Sons, and now under the Style Library umbrella) appears to take pride in its history, and to care about honoring the principles of its founders. The Morris & Co. label still makes and sell furnishings in the UK based on Morris’s designs. According to its website, “they are produced within Walker Greenbank Group factories, each of which operates with clear commitments and initiatives towards the care of the environment and to sustainability.”
Thus Morris & Co., in its current iteration, claims to be the worthy inheritor of William Morris’s original enterprise. His photograph and a short history of his work appear on the “About Us” page of the Style Library website. The site describes Morris’ liberal ideals and work as a “political theorist” (though not his socialist organizing). One wonders how the current relationship with H&M reflects on the legacy they are at least partly responsible for protecting.
Nor, given the wide reporting of exploitation and waste by H&M in recent years, can Morris & Co. be ignorant of the reputation of the corporation they are collaborating with. H&M is a manufacturing behemoth that has been accused of abominable environmental and employment practices. William Morris abhorred factory labor, pollution, and cheap manufacturing. Morris & Co. was a revolutionary alliance of artists and designers who hoped to make the world a better, more beautiful place. The only thing H&M and Morris & Co seem to have in common is an ampersand.
The world is waiting to hear the directors of Style Library explain why they chose to associate the Morris & Co. name with that of H&M. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the collaboration is likely to be very successful, at least from a monetary angle. Some items in the new Morris pattern line are already sold out on the H&M website. Clearly, William Morris’s designs still appeal to the modern consumer.
Meanwhile, the competing high-street fashion store Fat Face is presenting its new collection, of clothes inspired by “the experts in traditional craftsmanship — the Arts and Crafts movement,” the very movement which William Morris helped to create and to shape. Prints of Morris’s wallpaper designs are being used in Fat Face’s advertising campaigns, along with a vague-but-uplifting quote from John Ruskin, the man who preached the evils of factory labor: “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” What will be next?
H&M is selling T-shirts printed with the phrase, “Love is Enough.” This is the title of a book by William Morris, as well as of one of his most beautiful short poems.
O hearken the words of his voice of compassion:
‘Come cling round about me, ye faithful who sicken
Of the weary unrest and the world’s passing fashion!’
Is he gone? was he with us?—ho ye who seek saving,
Go no further; come hither! for have we not found it?
Here is the House of Fulfillment of Craving;
Here is the Cup with the roses around it;
The World’s wound well healed, and the balm that hath bound it:
Cry out! for he heedeth, fair Love that led home.
The cynicism behind the appropriation of Morris’s work by H&M is depressing. Morris himself was often hurt and shocked by the greed and thoughtlessness of the modern world. His poetry speaks to the sensitive dreamer in all of us, to our human yearning for a kinder, brighter world. Love is Enough is the heart cry of William Morris: artist, writer, and activist; it is a summons to the reader not to despair, but to remember that there is one force capable of soothing all the pain, exhaustion, and sadness of life. That force is not money, or power, or even beauty. It is the true antidote to cynicism: love, and love alone.