I was on my way home, mindlessly scrolling through my inbox in an attempt to entertain myself on a bus journey through a wet and gloomy London evening, when I noticed an email announcing a collaboration between H&M and Morris & Co. A proud owner of a William Morris phone case and countless postcard reproductions of his designs, I was, unsurprisingly, thrilled, and opened the message in a flash to discover what gems were in store for me. The collection, photographed against a background of rolling hills and overcast skies of the English countryside, was everything a Morris aficionado could wish for: his designs lend themselves equally well to being splashed all over flowy, romantic dresses and basic T-shirts, making for pieces that are chic, eye-catching and very wearable - an undeniably appealing combination. I was already debating which one I was going to splurge on when I stumbled upon an Instagram post by Grace Cain (@graceelizacain) questioning whether Morris himself would have been pleased to see his work appropriated in such a way. Well, I wondered, would he?
The simple answer is no. A jack-of-all-trades (and a master of many), Morris was not just an artist, but also a writer and an outspoken socialist devoted to the cause of the working classes in newly industrialized Victorian England. For Morris, the social and environmental impact of mechanical production which had taken the country by storm in the nineteenth century was insupportable; he was particularly concerned about the deplorable conditions under which workers laboured - forced into the factories by the ‘fear of death by starvation’ and slaving away at tedious, repetitive tasks.
Morris’s critique of the factory system was inspired by the ideas propounded by the influential Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, who decried the dehumanising effects of the attempt to make men into mere machines. The idea that work ought to be a source of satisfaction rather than mindless exertion is one which Morris borrowed from Ruskin’s thought, urging that ‘the chief duty of the civilized world to-day is to set about making labour happy for all’. Morris’s fundamental postulates were that work should be a fulfillment of a vocation, consisting of a varied range of useful tasks performed in a pleasant environment. Having established what is now Morris & Co., he organised his own workshops according to these ideals. Although he soon enough found that the demands of the market made his utopian vision too idealistic, he nevertheless sought to provide his employees with some degree of freedom and comfort: they were offered access to a collection of books, and ‘in the summer season the roses nodded in upon them at the open windows’.
Is this the William Morris H&M introduces us to? Certainly not. The campaign presents him chiefly as a lover and creator of beautiful design and a symbol of Englishness, with Morris & Co. being referred to as the ‘quintessentially British interiors brand’ in the promotional feature on H&M’s website. While Morris’s work as a political theorist is acknowledged, there’s not so much as a hint as to what his convictions were - which would hardly be an issue if not for the discomforting sense that the designer’s (carefully tailored) image has been appropriated by the very same capitalistic machine he had railed against in his time. According to an article published by the Clean Clothes Campaign a couple of days before the Morris & Co. collaboration hit the stores, H&M has fallen short of their commitment to pay their employees a living wage by 2018: workers in Bulgaria, Cambodia, Turkey and India, the research suggests, are still forced to work overtime to earn the statutory minimum wage. There is a chilling irony in the fact that the garments for the Morris & Co. collection are likely to be products of human exploitation, and it is distressing to see a figure like Morris being reduced to a superficial avatar of aesthetically appealing Britishness, his designs stripped of their politically radical associations - associations which happen to be quite inconvenient for H&M.
And so I agonize over my brand-new Morris & Co t-shirt (I still haven’t removed the tags), waging an internal battle with my conscience. Do I want to keep it? Frankly, yes; it is a very nice T-shirt. Do I feel like I should? No. Would I be having this dilemma if the piece in question was from the H&M basic range? Unlikely; although I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of fast fashion I consume, I still shop there occasionally and, I’m ashamed to admit, no purchase has ever thrown me into such a state of moral despair. Surely the fact that I consider this collection to be a gross injustice to Morris shouldn’t bother me more than the fact that it has been produced at the expense of other human beings. If my enjoyment of Morris’s designs so far has in no way been related to the convictions which shaped them, then why does it now seem dishonest to me to regard the two in abstraction from one another? Perhaps a pattern is, at the end of the day, just a pattern?
I put the T-shirt away, the tags still attached. I’ll decide what to do about it tomorrow.