Originally dating from the 1920s, the pretty liberty print is perfect for right now …
You know it’s time to rethink the traditional Tana lawn prints – usually associated with aprons, curtains and covered notebooks – when a trio of cool girls starts endorsing them. Designers Susie Cave (aka The Vampire’s Wife) and Pearl Lowe have used Liberty prints in their latest SS20 collections, while Alexa Chung told Harper’s Bazaar, “Christopher Niquet is my spirit animal. He has multiples of the same club-collar shirt in various Liberty prints.”
Niquet, in case you are unfamiliar with the name, is a stylist, author and partner of American designer Zac Posen – ergo, he moves in rarefied circles and has done much to keep the arty prints in fashion, especially in menswear. Of course, he’s French and may recall, as I do, the famous Cacherel soft focus advertising campaigns photographed by Sarah Moon, which highlighted the full range of garments using these pretty floral fabrics. The tagline “The clothes are Cacharel” was etched into a generation’s memory, especially bon chic bon genre French girls for whom a Liberty blouse was a wardrobe staple (there are several original Cacharel items on Vestiaire Collective). Meanwhile, their British “Sloane Ranger” counterparts, including Diana, Princess of Wales, paired the Tana lawn blouses with cashmere sweaters and pearls.
Originally, these prints date from the 1920s, when Liberty began to produce miniature floral, paisley and abstract designs and they have always been emphatically about colour – from pastels to jewel tones. Tana Lawn, by the way, takes its name from Lake Tana in Ethiopia where Liberty buyer William Haynes Porell discovered an early source for the yarn. The cotton material is silk-like, ideal for dresses, blouses, shirts and skirts, and now come in over 150 print patterns. (If in London, I recommend fabric fanatics visit Joel & Son, which is a great source for the material and its many contemporary iterations from corduroy to PVC).
When Liberty’s textile collections were energised in the 1960s and 1970s, the oriental-style prints became fashionable once more, and they paved the way for many interesting collaborations. Mary Quant, Jean Muir, Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood were all early adopters, while they were also favoured by rock and pop royalty. Did you know, for instance, David Bowie wore a Liberty print jumpsuit on the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? More recent designer collaborations have included those with Nike, Superga, House of Hackney, Hello Kitty, Manolo Blahnik and Barbour, the latter using the1880s William Morris-designed “Strawberry Thief” fabric for an exclusive wax jacket.
Metaphorically, as well as literally, they seem to chime with our current collective mood. Post (first wave) corona, they are reassuringly nostalgic; the simple, resilient and uplifting floral patterns have stood the test of time (as have we). If we are cautious about buying anything, investing in these prints seems wise – one of The Vampire’s Wife iterations is on my wish-list.
When used in interiors the prints lend a Bloomsbury vibe to decor, while carefully styled they show a certain confidence in the wearer. No wonder they were championed by Oscar Wilde; when he was editor of Woman’s World magazine (from 1887 – 1889) he promoted the aesthetic of the store, saying “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.”
Currently Brora has a range of pretty frocks in the fabric while Tory Burch’s SS20 collection of legacy paisleys riffs on the originals prints as do many other high street collections. You’ll find the real thing (currently discounted) at Magee 1866 where design director Charlotte Temple says, “Beautiful fabric is at the heart of what we do at Magee 1866, so we love working with the iconic Liberty of London studio. This season, we have chosen a series of delicate floral patterns. Our favourite is the ‘Kew Gardens’ tropical print blouse, subtle yet distinctive, and made of wonderfully soft silk.”
Irish milliner Emily-Jean Byrne has also used the prints for a limited edition collection of her Turband – a chic cover-up for bad hair days. Byrne explains, “Working with the fabric always conjures up its historic heritage. As a designer it is exciting to see the new prints Liberty releases each year, and I love having the opportunity to incorporate these into my work.”
Realistically, though, they are hard to wear without looking twee or verging on the old fashioned. Pearl Lowe deliberately goes the retro route designing her dresses on classic 1940s waisted A-line patterns. This doesn’t suit every shape however. Stylist Catherine Condell gives this advice: “I like the idea of teaming floral Liberty print shirts with plain Margaret Howell or COS-style skirts or trousers and vice versa. The strong, bold, neutral block tones and shapes work well against the prettiness of the prints.” For a different vibe, she adds, “I also like the idea of a full dress in the Liberty print, but calmed down with plain blocks of neutral or strong colour via accessories and shoes.” Personally I like to wear my Liberty blouses with a velvet blazer and (Frame) jeans. Alternatively, you could match your dress to your tablecloth as Irish party planner Fiona Leahy (pictured above) has done with such romantic flair …
THE VAMPIRE’S WIFE
Blue Liberty print cotton crepe Cinderella dress, €557, The Vampire’s Wife
I also like the idea of a full dress in the Liberty print, but calmed down with plain blocks of neutral or strong colour via accessories and shoes.
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