Useful and Beautiful? William Morris and H&M

Coincidentally, two days after I asked whether the bourgeois elite ever matched their upholstery to the fabric of their dress, I took myself to the William Morris Gallery to work out what I thought about the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. Spoiler: while I am decidedly annoyed with myself for buying a pretty but unnecessary book about mazes (labyrinths have been on my mind – what else?), I remain ambivalent about the latest of the Swedish fashion chain’s myriad partnerships.

A West End window, emblazoned with the autumn partnership. Photo by author

On H&M’s campaign page, the shopper is encouraged to get lost ‘in a world of exquisite original patterns and modern tributes to the work of William Morris, one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated designers’, in celebration of ‘nature, style and timelessness’. Two models stride through a moor where they offer daisies, peer through windows, dunk enamel cups in basins, and snap pics with a vintage camera, self-referentially underscoring the ad’s amateur film footage look to induce the brand of lifestyle envy that only the 30-second fashion advertisement can. Then: an array of womenswear, ranging from £5.99 to £79.99, though neither the fabric hairband nor the wool-blend coat book-ending the spectrum represent actual collaboration pieces. Out of 90 products, 33 are William Morris & Co. x H&M. And so while there is nothing extraordinary about a two-pack of knee socks, the collection is meant to be a composition of heavy, heady historical references attenuated by standard H&M basics. Pair pleated skirts, maxi dresses and printed wide trousers with knit jumpers, Chelsea boots and faux fur coats: one can ‘curate’ outfits in a way that, in the age of online shopping, would normally never bear mentioning but which happens to resonate particularly with Morris’s artistic ethos: hand-picked Art for Art’s sake…and for everyone else’s.

A selection of pieces from the H&M x Morris & Co. collaboration. From https://
www2.hm.com/en_gb/ladies/shop-by-feature/1288a-morris-co-x-hm.html?sort=ascPrice&imagesize=
small&image=stillLife&offset=0&page-size=90

William Morris was one of the 19th century’s romantic, disappointing sons who abandoned a future in the church in favour of much more earthly realms. Getting a taste of artistic camaraderie after falling in with the Pre-Raphaelites, larking about on Rossetti’s hilarious ‘Jovial Campaign’ and embarking upon a group artistic housewarming project, he and six partners—whom he eventually bought out—founded the interior decorating business Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. Disillusioned with modernism and industrial modes of production and radically nostalgic for an age of highly artisanal craftsmanship, Morris pioneered a sort of anti-Industrial Revolution. As a progressive socialist and firm believer that beauty belonged to the masses, he also understood the limits to what could only ever ideally be a democratic model, apparently regretting that his ‘his high quality, handmade products were beyond the means of ordinary working people’ (William Morris Gallery). In a move similar to that of 19th century couture houses, his evolving company launched more affordable lines to attract a wider range of clientele – the interior design’s analogue of fashion’s ready-to-wear.

Mannequins dressed in collaboration pieces at H&M. Photo by author

While the ideal Morris client would have afforded an exquisite, hand-crafted, bespoke interior – despite the designer’s empathy for broader swathes of society – there is nothing inherently bespoke in today’s accessible, ubiquitous fashion lines. To be fair, what H&M has done is, superficially, no different from what countless museum gift shops – commercial spaces with much closer ties to art and history – do: if the scarf my mom wears at the Huntington Gallery is not printed with a Morris design, it certainly shares the look. Even his contemporaries ‘dressed themselves with his wall hangings’ (William Morris Gallery). Perhaps it is simply that, what with H&M as an established, popular clothing store, I am more inclined to critically analyse the partnership in terms of fashion and art history and get caught up in notions of integrity; and because Morris had such striking aesthetic principles, I am more invested in an ideological dialogue that I find lacking. Ultimately, the collaboration between Morris & Co. and a mostly-affordable fast fashion company that tends to satisfy and disappoint me at an equal pace oscillates between seeming antithetical and completely fitting. I have not purchased anything, nor do I plan to, and, as mentioned above, I remain ambivalent. But perhaps it would be more fitting to frame this ambivalence as a blossoming response to William Morris’s motto, ‘Si je puis: Pourquoi pas?’