Morris & Co X H&M: 19th Century Theory meets 21st Century Execution

Vic Clarke is a PhD Researcher based at the University of Leeds. Her interdisciplinary thesis, entitled ‘Reading and Writing the Northern Star, 1837-1848’ explores the workings and readership of the Chartist movement’s leading newspaper. Vic currently works as a Research Assistant on the AHRC Letterpress Project at the University of Leeds, and her research interests span all over the nineteenth century, from readership to industry and labour to print culture to fashion. You can find her tweeting at @vjc_torianist or check out more of her writing on her (oft-neglected) website, Mastering the Victorian.

As many Victorianists will know, the 4th October of this year marked the launch of a unique collaboration between Swedish high street fashion retailer H&M and the Victorian designs of William Morris and Co. Although Morris & Co. ceased operations under the Morris family in the 1940s, the designs and wallpaper archives were purchased by Sanderson and Sons’ furnishings, now part of the Style Library group.[1] The concept of a high street partnership is not new to Morris & Co., as home furnishings with Morris’ designs are easy to find in John Lewis & Partners and TK Maxx. At first glance, an affordable, accessible high street shop seems the perfect outlet for Morris’ designs. The Arts & Crafts movement he spearheaded was based on the concept “that the art we are striving for is a good thing that all can share, that can elevate all,” and he further insisted that even in the disparate wage and class divides of Victorian Britain that everybody – regardless of income or class – deserves to have nice, beautiful things about them.[2]

Morris’ simple philosophy of ‘art for all’ can, in fact, be seen as two sides of the same coin: art for all, and art by all. His most well known prose work, News From Nowhere, (1881) was first published serially in the Socialist League newspaper The Commonweal. Fittingly for the publication, Morris envisions a utopia in which buildings, textiles, clothing, and general products are hand made by artisans, using only machines that would save on human labour to allow for them to lead rich, fulfilling lives.[3] Conversely, within the Morris & Co. business, his Kelmscott press (which included a uniquely designed typeface inspired by Medieval art) allows for mass production of texts to some extent, while still relying on the artisan labour of font design and fine carpentry and metalwork for the creation of type blocks. His home furnishings, including wallpapers and upholstery, were mass produced under fair working conditions, befitting Morris’ socialist ideals.

In the late 19th century, Morris crossed a fine line between individual, bespoke design, and mass production of quality objects. In the 21st century, H&M employ a range of designers and release new products every few weeks, as opposed to every season. As part of the ‘fast fashion’ movement, this ensures a huge variety of products for the consumer, constantly creating new fashions and trends.[4] The products on offer in the Morris & Co. collaboration, then, are particularly interesting: new products within the range are released every few weeks, in accordance with H&M’s business model, while the general style of the products mixes the beautiful prints of Morris with new construction ideas more suited to modern tastes. The contradiction is fantastic for those of us who research the fashion of this period; the idea of a late Victorian gentleman donning a ‘M&Co’ hoody particularly tickles. The cheapest items in the range are indeed that 21st century wardrobe staple: the t-shirt – priced at £8.99 for women and £12.99 for men, and available in sizes 6-20 for women and XS-XXL for men. Although few products in the range extend to ‘H&M Plus’ maximum size 28, the mixture of the utilitarian t-shirt with Morris’ designs ensures that at least some of his designs are affordable and accessible for the many. Through clothing, the consumer is consciously interacting with the art, using their own creative flair to style the items as befitting to them, further developing Morris’ art into their own creative expression. Additionally, by wearing the clothes, consumers are displaying the art to the public whenever they leave the house, literally surrounding themselves with the beauty that Morris was so desperate for.

The different ranges which use Morris & Co’s designs within the H&M collaboration include ‘Premium Quality’ and ‘Conscious,’ but not all items fall into these ranges, raising questions. Morris was particularly keen on his work being sustainable: he writes in his essay, ‘The Factory: As it Is, and As It Might Be,’ (1884) of the need to rid the world of “the stupid waste of competitive distribution,” and the excess material it creates.[5] Vogue, in September of this year, reported that the H&M ‘Conscious’ range comes from organically sourced cotton, and recycled man-made materials: “Today, 35 per cent of the materials the H&M group uses to make its clothes are organic, recycled or sustainably-sourced. […] ‘By 2020 the company is aiming for all cotton in our range to come from sustainable sources.’”[6] The ‘Premium Quality’ range, further to this, uses high quality natural materials including real leather and wool to ensure a long-lasting product, matched with a heftier price tag than standard products. While these goals set by the company are admirable, and certainly much needed, the disposal of waste product in the first place is still incredibly problematic, and an issue that the fashion industry as a whole urgently needs to address. ‘Fast fashion’ as a model relies on the idea that clothing is temporary, a consumable to be disposed of when the trend is gone: tastes changed often in the Victorian period also, but this was combatted in the market with second-hand clothing and thriving alterations businesses which updated existing clothes, as fabric was simply so expensive. 

A recent BBC article states that the fashion industry is in the top five industries for pollutants.[7] Later in his ‘Factory…’ pamphlet, Morris writes that his ideal factory “must make no sordid litter, befoul no water, nor poison the air with smoke” in the manufacture of items.[8] We now have the opposite problem to that which Morris aimed to solve: the over-consumption of natural resources, most pressingly, water. In News From Nowhere he envisaged a world in which materials are shared harmoniously by everyone, where money has been abolished, where children can do as they like, and where conditions of manufacture are not only better for the environment, but for the people involved. Since the Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh in 2013, many ‘fast fashion’ retailers have been committed to improving working conditions in their factories. H&M state that they aim for fair wages (a vague definition but nonetheless a nice idea).[9] They write, on their commitment to fair wages:

WHY THE PRICE TAG DOESN’T CORRELATE WITH THE PAYSLIP

A sweater that costs as little as €8 can absolutely be produced in a sustainable way — the sustainable option shouldn’t be more expensive, that would be extremely contra productive. […] The workers in the supplier factories make exactly as much whether they produce a €8 garment or a €80 garment. That’s because different brands in different price ranges produce in the same countries and the same factories, by the same people […]. At H&M group, we want to make sustainable products available and affordable for all.

The suggestion of co-operation between groups along the supply chain, from farm to consumer, seems somewhat closer to Morris’ socialist values, but given the higher price tag for ‘conscious’ and ‘premium quality’ collections, one does wonder how this works in practice.

Since the industrial process exacerbated the speed and demand for mass produced goods in the early nineteenth century, these goods have existed and, most likely, will always exist. And, like they have since the early nineteenth century, they will come at a cost. As Morris found to his detriment, the noble quest to provide art for all does not always work: it is not fair for artists to lose out on compensation for their labour, and it is not fair that labour is valued so wildly that not everyone can afford art. Within the Morris & Co X H&M Collaboration, one piece that strikes me in particular is the ‘Love is Enough’ t-shirt, featuring Morris’ famous Kelmscott font and signature flowers. Morris, in his day, created beautiful designs based on the natural world, inspired by the pre-industrial days of the Medieval period.[10] Even his speculative novel is strangely nostalgic for a different time: is our own present-day consumption of Morris’ work indicative of our nostalgia for Morris’ arts and crafts movement, and a slower pace of consumption? 

Notes

[1] ‘Morris & Co,’ Style Library [https://www.stylelibrary.com/morris&co/]

[2] William Morris, ‘Art for the People,’ Hopes and Fears for Art (Ellis and White: London, 1882) p. 55.

[3] William Morris, News From Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2003).

[4] Solene Rauturier, ‘What is Fast Fashion?’ Good On You (7th August 2018) [https://goodonyou.eco/what-is-fast-fashion/]

[5] William Morris, ‘The Factory: As It Is, and As It Might Be’ (New York Labor News Co.: New York, 1922). P. 9

[6] Alice Newbold, ‘H&M Drives Sustainability With 8th Conscious Exclusive Collection,’ Vogue (11th September 2018) [https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/handm-conscious-exclusive-collection-autumn-winter-2018]

[7] Radhika Sanghani, ‘Stacey Dooley Investigates: Are your clothes wrecking the planet?’ BBC Three (9th October 2018) [https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5a1a43b5-cbae-4a42-8271-48f53b63bd07?ns_campaign=bbc-three&ns_mchannel=social&ns_source=FACEBOOK&ns_comments=bbcthree]

[8] Morris, ‘The Factory…’ p.16

[9] ‘Fair Living Wages,’ H&M Corporate (2018) [https://about.hm.com/en/sustainability/sustainable-fashion/wages.html]

[10] ‘William Morris and historical design,’ Victoria and Albert Museum [https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/william-morris-and-historical-design]

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