Marshall & Snelgrove Ltd, 1895 – 1900, V&A Museum

Characterised by flowing lines and natural floral motifs, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to industrialisation, as opposed to being a style with a specific set of rules. It promoted and celebrated handcrafted goods above all else. The inherent beauty of the material was stressed, and utility, simplicity and beauty were central to the movement.

Lots of the inspiration for motifs came from the British hedgerows and gardens, causing a boom in popularity for natural influences. William Morris was a key designer in this respect depicting birds and flora on fabric, homewares and soft furnishings.

Wildflowers, in particular, were very popular, alongside birds and shrubbery being very common.

 

Above is a coat produced by Marshall and Snelgrove in a rich navy velvet, embroidered with sweet cicely blooms and the gores of the coat adorned with delicate lace. The flowers are made of white felt with a small knot of gold thread and the centre, which would catch the light and sparkle slightly. Each spray was hand-embroidered in yellow and gold silk, which has now faded to a golden hue.

The coat has a high collar, full sleeves and a voluminous silhouette, which together echo a medieval feel, similar to the style seen in tapestries. This is all done to represent the charm and simplicity of country life, in retaliation to the urbanisation caused by the industrial revolution.

Marshall and Snelgrove was a high-end London department store, and bespoke dressmaking was one of the services offered in the Oxford Street location, and as this coat is covered in hand embellishment, it would be a very expensive garment.

Liberty, 1893, V & A Museum

Even though the arts and crafts movement was intended to combat the machinery and industrialisation of manufacturing, garments and jewellery made by hand could not compete with the prices of mass-manufactured goods, so items like this coat would have been largely inaccessible to working-class citizens.

Liberty saw this gap in the market and started mass-producing goods with the natural motifs and designs that were fashionable, and sold them at a lower price.

For example, figure 2 features hand embroidery just above the hem, and the smocking of the bodice would have been hand-made. But the seams were likely machine stitched, and the lace was machine-made.

The fabric used, silk for the outer and then lined in cotton, was also machine produced. There are other elements involved in the creation of this garment, brass hooks and prongs along the waistband, which may have also been mass-produced and then purchased for use with the garment. 

Liberty products were also distributed from department stores, and this meant that garments that were purchased on site were not as finely tailored, so fashions of this time began to get looser. They also resembled fashions seen throughout history and were seen as more simple and romantic, which is what this movement was trying to convey.

 

Although not every element would have been machine-made, having even a few, particularly lace, would have cut manufacturing time and price considerably. Making these fashions more accessible to people of all classes caused a boom in popularity for natural motifs, handmade jewellery and accessories.

This went against the nature of the movement, as it was about distancing from machinery, but when jewellery began to be mass-produced, it was done to look as though it were hand-crafted, with brands like Liberty once again adapting the designs.

But this was also an opportunity for women to grow their reputations as designers, with many gaining a lot of traction, such as May Moris (William Morris’s daughter), Charlotte Newman and Georgie Gaskin. These designs were more modest than other Victorian jewellery and emphasised the value of design rather than the price of any gems and materials used.

Figure 3 is one of Gaskin’s designs, a silver wire pendant, adorned with cabochon-cut opals and glass. It beautifully encapsulates the flowing lines and curves common in art and crafts designs, and is refined and elegant, without looking eccentric.

Opal gems shift colour depending on how the light is hitting them, so even if the top is domed instead of faceted, it would still sparkle beautifully in the light.

The fact that, at the beginning of this movement, it would have been very expensive, and so only the elite could afford it. This is likely how it rose to be fashionable, as the people who were viewed as fashionable wore Liberty garments, decorated their homes with  William Morris prints and wore May Morris jewellery to functions.

The arts and crafts movement was more simple and understated than previous Victorian fashions, seeing more value in the natural elements of drapery, and fitting loose against the body, contrasting the corseted, closely tailored garments, with full skirts, full sleeves and ruffles. There was some back push to the movement initially, with critics saying the lines had no purpose, or that, because it didn’t abide by the classical ‘rules’ of art and design, it was lesser.

 

Georgie Gaskin Pendant, 1920, V & A Museum,

But, later as the styles were popularised, there was a greater appreciation for the romantic and simplistic styles with their medieval charm.

 It would eventually develop into the ‘S curve’ shape of the Edwardian period, which emphasised the bust, hips and waist.

But the influences of the movement would be seen from the 1860s into the 1920s, and influences can still be seen today, with William Morris still producing prints and designs, and Liberty selling fabrics. Some jewellery or furnishings exist as family heirlooms and antiques, surrounding us in history we are blissfully unaware of.