While traveling through the UK and Europe recently, I noticed a common theme on the high streets: all images are there to encourage a sale. And as scholars of consumer culture have made clear, the kind of hyper-consumerism that saturates these commercial districts affects the meaning of what we see. We’ve all become used to images being depoliticised in order to sell – from once-political styles like punk’s DIY leather jackets to the actual faces of real-life radicals like Che Guevara and Frida Kahlo turned into popular designs. And yet I was still shocked when I saw how H&M is marketing their latest collection, a collaboration with “heritage brand” Morris & Co.
What surprised me the most is how they are presenting the maximalist floral patterns in this collection as straightforward British traditionalism. As a long-time fan of William Morris’s designs, it’s been exciting for me to see so many people discover these patterns as the collection turns instafamous. However, it’s introducing consumers to a version of William Morris that erases so much of the intended meaning of his original work. This just goes to show how far capital can go to erase radical histories. H&M is reaching back to Morris’s nineteenth century patterns – originally intended to inject revolutionary beauty into everyday wallpaper and curtains – and telling a different narrative which places these designs among the status quo as Victorian “tradition”.
The H&M Campaign
In addition to being a poet and designer, William Morris was also a revolutionary. He was a friend of Capital authors Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, and also to trade union and suffrage campaigners Eleanor Marx, Sylvia Pankhurst and Annie Besant. His home decorations were a political ideology which went hand and hand with his writing and activism: he was a utopian who believed that craftwork and cooperation would make wage labour obsolete. Far from being simply the “iconic [Nineteenth Century] British wallpaper and fabrics brand” which H&M presents, Morris’s company was initially run on collective principles and directed by his daughter May.
Today we are seeing H&M labelling Morris’s work as “heritage,” echoed by Vogue and The Guardian. They launched the collaboration with a campaign video shot in a grainy, vintage style complete with an appearance from a vintage camera itself. Skinny white women and a collie dog prance through what looks like the Scottish Highlands, a basic yet quaint cottage to their backs. They wear silk scarves, maxi dresses, and pussy bow tops; these are demure items paired with classic jumpers and jeans.
Traditionalism is communicated through all promotional imagery, and nostalgia for the Victorian establishment’s opulence was invoked when H&M gathered influencers for “paid partnerships” at a Morris-decorated stately home, Standen House. Thus H&M takes the mediaeval aesthetic which Morris used in protest, advocating pre-industrial values – and has re-”labelled” the floral imagery to present hegemonic meanings of traditionalism and nostalgia.
The Cycle of Resistance and Reincorporation
There’s a cultural studies term for the process of resignifying symbols of resistance through commodification: reincorporation. Used by Dick Hebdige in Subculture: the Meaning of Style, it names the process by which the dominant culture “freezes” subcultural icons and returns them to a place of belonging within a mainstream set of meanings. The deviant meanings are robbed of their power as commodified mass production translates the object to signify dominant worldviews. Mainstream fashion does this as it recycles past iconography, but in a way that erases the common radicalism and deviance of style “from below.”
Importantly, though, Hebdige did not argue that all resistant culture – including fashion – is ruined by commodification. Instead, he saw culture as a power struggle where meanings are constructed through the interplay between resistant and homogenising forces; it’s a broadly Gramscian view of how culture works. Drawing from this assumption, his chief insight into sartorial commodification is in his framing of the history of style as cycles of resistance and reincorporation. He argued that the subcultural bricoleur’s recycling of mainstream media and objects could subvert the process of commodification.
But fashion is political and what the industry chooses to re-cycle from the past is even moreso.
Returning to William Morris, it is important today to understand the intended meanings behind his imagery and production process but also the long history these images have and the cycles of resistance and reincorporation through which they have gone. To explore this history can help to illustrate how H&M’s conservative presentation of Morris as a ‘traditionalist’ is a dominant, powerful signification – but not the only possible interpretation.
The Role of Mass Production
We can see cycles of resistance and reincorporation of the Morris designs in the long history of their mass production, which in fact long predates H&M bringing these designs to mass-produced clothing. Mass production – the techniques Morris resisted – brought his craft out of the wealthy Victorian households which could afford craft items and into the everyday household. Class and consumption are by necessity interlinked, and mass production complicates the messages within Morris’ work because for the first time the designs truly became accessible – but so, too, did their meaning begin to be reincorporated by capital. For instance, mass-produced mugs, coasters, tea towels and other household items acted as affordable symbols of affinity with Morris when marketed in terms of the designers’ history or bought by consumers with prior knowledge. At the same time, political erasure did of course happen when they were presented out of context simply as household items.
My own enjoyment of his style and admiration for his politics means I have inadvertently built up a little collection of William Morris household items – in fact, it’s become something of a tradition with my partner. Interestingly, one such tea towel is an example of the complexity at work in Morris’ commodification: it is mass produced, but by ethical manufacturers The Radical Tea Towel Company, who aim to celebrate radical ideas and histories through such mundane and useful items as tea towels. This, to me, sounds like an appropriate fit with Morris’ own aspirations. In fact, like Morris, this company sees production from a different, more personal angle – the people behind the company describe themselves as not “really [having] any business experience” but wanting to facilitate “other people with progressive politics out there who wanted to give gifts that actually mean something and make you think.” My tea towel itself reminds me of Morris’s commitment to workers’ rights, bearing the quote “when class-robbery is abolished every man will reap the fruits of his labour” alongside his famous Strawberry Thief design. The choice to bring out the ideals behind the art is a stark contrast with H&M’s re-casting of his art without the ideals – and shows that radicalism can be celebrated through re-workings within these cycles of reincorporation and resistance.
The Complexity of the Cycle
The ways in which we both use Morris’s work and remember him as a person are complex. Commodification isn’t linear or simple. Morris himself shows the ambivalence embodied by affluent socialists. He may have strived to bring better labour conditions for the workers who produced his items by hand and work to inject beauty into the utility of the home – but he failed to remedy the fact that so few could afford his objects, as cultural studies pioneer EP Thompson shows in William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Further, the compartmentalisation of his writing, politics and art started not long after his death in 1896 and his company began to be hailed as “British national style” as early as the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris. In 1910, it was Morris & Co who designed George V’s throne. Reincorporation, then, started early and this first wave of posthumous uses made Morris’s imagery ripe for today’s nostalgia towards British Empire’s traditionalism.
Further, Morris’s own activism arguably falls short when we consider the limitations of the material stakes of his design. We must question how truly revolutionary an aesthetic can be. His early anti-Capitalist ideals meant he prized craftsmanship and rejected the Victorian era’s focus on industrialisation, and so the political rationale behind his art was altered a long time ago by the simple fact of mass production (which of course is a feature of reincorporation). Morris’s writings show us his utopian commitment to art as “work-pleasure” to be enjoyed by all; he hoped that labour could be an enjoyable rather than exploitative part of everyday life and was a committed trades union activist.
If we bring these ideals to bare on H&M’s collection, the result is similar to the discrepancies between Morris’s outlook and the present Morris & Co. Mass production typically entails worker exploitation, and it stands to reason that William Morris, were he alive today, would have campaigned for a Living Wage and against sweatshops. Poor worker conditions are as much a feature of the fashion landscape today as they were of manufacturing under early industrialisation. Although H&M implemented a Living Wage in 2013, there have been controversies around sweatshop-like conditions and abuses in factories where the company’s clothes are made.
The Resistance Continues
Where these ideals are perhaps most likely to be re-visited is in the history of Morris’s designs as seen through Hebdige’s dialectic relationship between reincorporation and resistance. During the sexual revolution, when autodidact designer Mary Quant was pushing the boundaries of women’s fashion inspired by Mod subcultural style, she made a mini-skirt suit out of William Morris’s “Marigold” print. She turned it into a rebellious item of clothing – enveloping the wearer in an innovative and challenging item which collapsed divisions between old and new. H&M’s 60’s-esque mini dress uses the same print but does not publicize its heritage.
The same period saw George Harrison in a “Golden Lily”-patterned blazer or John Lennon in “Chrysanthemum”, both from King’s Road boutique Granny Takes a Trip. H&M likewise echoes these designs through its “Pimpernel” trouser suits. It seems to me that musicians and designers in this period felt affinity with the utopian politics of Morris himself and the bohemianism of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with which he was associated. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin went so far as to buy the Gothic Revival “Tower House” and fill it with Arts & Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite work. These figures embraced the Nineteenth Century imagery and design not because of nostalgia for traditionalism but a different sort of backward gaze – a will to connect with the utopianism Morris represents, the DIY quality of the Arts and Crafts movement and a resistance to capitalist commodification.
To me, the most original and personally resistant use of Morris comes from someone else who experimented with his prints in that period: a faux Morris mural acted as prop to his rebelliously individual style when David Bowie reclined in a Pre-Raphaelite-inspired dress in front of it for the original 1971 “The Man Who Sold the World” album cover.
Today, when we see symbols of resistance being sold on the high streets without context or attention to their meanings, the powerful work is in celebrating and spreading these histories. For just as imagery can be re-cycled ways and reincorporated, so too can it be re-cycled in a spirit of rebellion and provoking thought. The role of the media is clear in terms of reincorporation: hegemonic voices are the ones which “label” resistant imagery in the reincorporation cycle. But media platforms can also record and remind us of resistance when corporations overlook it with a view to sales. So in exploring the ideas behind William Morris’s work and the long history of reincorporation and re-use undergone by his work, I seek to counter the narrative H&M are spinning about an “iconic British wallpaper and fabrics brand” which stands for tradition and timelessness. Circulating the histories hidden from the high street can add so much meaning to how and why we wear what we do – and resist the meaninglessness which the sales agenda ascribes to images.
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