Morris & Co x H&M: A Conflict Between Culture and Commerciality?

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‘Oh, it’s very you’, said a friend, as I carefully lifted the dress from my bag. ‘It’ll go really well with your complexion’. While there had been a somewhat subconscious decision to settle on piece with complementary colours, the reasons for my most recent purchase had decidedly less to do with my own features than they had to do with the design printed upon it. 

The dress in question was a piece from a collaboration I’d been eagerly anticipating: Morris & Co x H&M. With H&M being one of the few affordable clothing retailers in my university town which has managed to evade being taken over by yet another souvenir shop, I was admittedly enchanted by their decision to ally their clothing staples with Morris’ iconic designs. 

Today, William Morris is a name which is received with an almost collective recognition. Remembered mostly for his influential involvement in the anti-industrial British Arts and Crafts Movement in the nineteenth-century, the versatility of his work means that his prints and designs can still be found adorning the walls of many a home – as well as behind panes of glass, and between bookends in museums and libraries. 

Although Morris’ designs have earned what I believe to be a deserved cult-like following, the accumulation of its contemporary appreciation was by no means instantaneous. Interestingly, the commercial clamour for Morris’ designs came after the cultural watershed produced by the 1860s, at the beginning of the following decade. Until then, appreciation of his work had primarily rested with individuals outside of mainstream society – those with a pre-established appreciation of aesthetics.  

H&M’s recent partnership with Morris & Co arguably shares some parallels with the conditions in which public reception of Morris’ designs originally began to thrive. Without the influence of commercialism, his work could not have amassed the widespread popularity it can testify to retaining today. Yet, to claim that the impacts of commercialisation were unanimously benevolent would be to palpably overlook Morris’ socialist principles, as well as his values as a creative. 

In addition to being extremely aesthetically conscious, Morris’ dedication to his art was accompanied by an equally acute awareness of the need to improve the atrocious working conditions endured by those responsible for replicating his designs. 

The relationship between culture and commercialism in this case is, therefore, inevitably fraught. While the launch of the collaboration has been met with elation by some, other responses have been – understandably –  less jubilant. Would Morris be turning in his grave at the thought of his art being fused to the associations of a high-street clothing retailer? Is this most modern of replications of his prints simply a blatant dismissal of his ideological standpoint? Should we really be able to appreciate the aesthetics of Morris’ art at the same time as buying yet another multi-pack of tights? 

Despite the indisputable queries over the circumstances surrounding its production, it is my opinion that the new collection offers a fresh opportunity for self-expression. What I have always valued most about fashion is its potential for an alternative kind of assertiveness. It is sometimes through my own personal style that I feel I communicate messages of association, preference, and even rejection, most powerfully. Yet, fashion is also one of the most genuine forms of self-care I know. Not only is it a means to assert political feeling, but it can also be a valid way to find comfort in spite of the uncertainty and hurt the political climate continues to inflict.   

Wearers of H&M’s most recent collaboration have the opportunity, then, to showcase Morris’ designs on their own terms. The subjectivity of personal style is in a sense, extremely liberating, as when one chooses to wear to a piece from the new collection, it could be for one of a multitude of reasons.

In an age where the practices of the fast fashion industry remain unavoidably problematic, it is so important that we do not romanticise the issues surrounding its methods of commercial production. Yet, on the other hand, it is important to remember that it is possible to engage with and appreciate the aesthetics of the collection simply because of their deserved artistic beauty. This engagement is especially significant when we consider that some of those designs have since been relegated to walls and halls of entitlement and privilege.

While H&M is not the first retailer to have seized upon the widespread appeal of Morris’ designs, it is certainly the first markedly high street brand to so. Although Liberty London sells a bespoke range of pieces with Morris’ prints on them, their upmarket prices mean that they are far beyond the narrow constraints of a student budget. 

Therefore, without cheapening the artistic value of Morris’ designs, H&M’s collection offers an unparalleled potential for accessibility to them. As well as accommodating for the circumstances of the student demographic, several of the collection’s designs are also available in the ‘H&M +’ line. This due attention to the needs of people who wear a larger array of sizes – a need which could otherwise be overlooked – is just one example of how much Morris’ and H&M’s priorities can be seen to align in this partnership.  

After seeing this reworking of Morris’ art in person, and combing through rails of assorted shirts, dresses, scarves and sweaters in various prints, cuts and styles, I am so excited about the far-reaching potential the new collection poses for newfound appreciation of and accessibility to Morris’ work. While the Victorianist has the opportunity to cherish their most beloved Morris print in a new form, those who have not yet come across Morris’ work will be able to encounter it in an affordable, accessible, and unintimidating way.

The resonance of the new collection is striking. While this project certainly does not constitute the first time Morris’ art has been adapted for another medium, its progression to a clothing line is perhaps one of the most debatable re-workings it has received to date. 

Ultimately, the fact that the collection’s launch has encouraged these questions about culture, commerciality, and our place as consumers within that dialogue is confirmation of fashion’s necessity, as well as its power, as a cultural discourse. 

Through our clothing, we can curate and celebrate our sense of self, and I think that the careful selection of pieces in the collection does testify to Morris’s desire to create art which could be appreciated by all. 

Jessica Armstrong is a final year English Literature undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. When she’s not on the silent floor of the library, it is likely that Jessica can be found getting audibly excited about the miraculous beverage that is a London Fog, scones, or student-run arts festivals elsewhere among the town’s three streets.