European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal Fashion & History

Fashion and the Arts and Crafts Movement


The Other Side of Modernity

The industrial revolution is often regarded as the key moment for the beginning of a new era. In his book ‘The great divergence’, historian Kenneth Pomeranz individuated Western culture, specifically Great Britain, as the cradle of a new positive sensibility towards machines, that ultimately led to modernisation. However, together with this modernity came the negative effect of industrialisation, which led designers and artists to develop new approaches and ways to express social anxieties. One of the responses to these feelings and contradictions was the Arts & Craft Movement.

The Arts & Craft Movement was founded during the 1880s by a group of designers and artists working in London. It was based on the idea that craftsmanship was an enjoyable practice, as opposed to mechanic work, and could help men to express their interiority, naturally drawn towards art and beauty. Critic John Ruskin was the one who theorised the aims and philosophy of the movement, and wrote extensively about the connections between the social role of art and the value of work. The name more directly associated with the movement is that of William Morris, who was a textile designer, poet, and social activist. Drawing from Ruskin’s writings, through his work he campaigned for return to hand-craftsmanship, recognising to artisans the status of artists, and to a closer contact with nature. Indeed, the privileged motifs characterising the aesthetics of the movement took inspiration from the natural world: leaves, flower, animals composed the scenes illustrated on textiles and stitched in the embroideries.

Another centre where a similar movement developed was Glasgow, precisely at the Glasgow School of Art, where studied the likes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret and Frances McDonald, Herbert MacNair. The Glasgow scene counted for many women designers, who focused their practice on textiles and embroideries. Amongst them were Jessie King, an illustrator whose designs were sold at the Liberty Department Store in London, and Jessie Newbery, who produced embroideries and was also a teacher at the Glasgow School of Art.

However, the movement was not entirely against industrial techniques; designers were in fact keen on collaborating with industries, as long as the products were produced according to an ethical code that safeguarded the identity of both materials, and of the people working with them.