How Shall We Live Then? The moral dilemma of wearing the new H&M Morris & Co collection

H&M’s latest collection featuring William Morris designs has flown out of their thousands of shops worldwide.

It is floaty and floral and oh so attractively priced. Although it only launched this month, there is now a feeding frenzy online for the few items left. Morris is firmly back in fashion and, oh joy, machine washable. But hang on, should we be worried about this? What would Morris have made of this H&M Collection sold in his name? Is it true to his aesthetic and social vision and if not, should we care?

Sarah Woods’ excellent Kelmscott Lecture on Patterning in Story, Society and Wallpaper was an engaging mix of thought provoking history, storytelling, philosophy and politics. But at times it made for uncomfortable listening for some of the audience who were wearing their new H & M, Morris & Co collection. There was a sense of irony that they were attending The William Morris Society’s annual lecture in the very coach house in Hammersmith where Morris delivered his Socialist League lectures, such as How Shall We Live Then?
Kelmscott House was also the place where he wrote a letter agreeing to deliver a presentation to the Working Men’s College London in December 1881 on Some hints on Pattering Designing. All of Morris’s designs feature the natural world and aimed to have the three qualities of beauty, imagination and order. Morris was influenced by Froissart’s medieval designs as evidenced by his many daisy patterns and also by Islamic designs at the South Kensington Museum inspiring motifs of scrolling leaves and flowers.
Morris has been criticised for spouting Socialist rhetoric whilst capitalising from the sale of his home furnishing business at prices way beyond the reach of the working man. His first wallpaper design Trellis (1862), a hand blocked version of which can still be seen at the exit of The William Morris Society premises, contained copper arsenic salt, a toxic ingredient widely used at the time. Morris was a director of a copper mine with arsenic as a by-product, a position which does not sit well with his devotees’ view of Morris as Socialist Saint. But, Woods argued, Morris’s life was as contradictory and complex as his patterns, so before judging him too harshly we should understand he was evolving with the practices and social changes of his time. And in his defence, he resigned his directorship of the mine and produced arsenic free wallpapers once he had discovered the risks.

Morris also had difficulty balancing the goal of making art affordable for the many with using top quality materials and craftsmen. But although he may have been pleased that so many could now afford to wear clothes featuring his designs, he would have been horrified to read this year’s report on Gender Based Violence in the H&M Garment Supply Chain. It makes for harrowing reading. In India, women workers employed in an H&M supplier factory in Bangalore, India have reported repeated physical abuse associated with pressure to meet production targets. Radhika described being thrown to the floor and beaten:
“On September 27, 2017, at 12:30 pm, my batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling “you are not meeting your target production.” He pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again. He kicked me.”
Despite reporting this, the harassment from her manager did not stop, but Radhika continued to work at the factory because she needed the job:
“My husband passed away and I have a physically challenged daughter who cannot work. That is why I need the job. I suffer a lot to earn my livelihood.”
As well as the moral dilemmas associated with sweatshops and sexual harassment, Morris may also have felt compromised aesthetically. He deliberately made patterns for specific uses, such as wallpapers or textiles. Now his patterns have been recoloured and printed on a broad range of, arguably, unsuitable items and materials.
So why are we compelled to purchase these cheap frills, despite knowing that, after the initial rush of excitement, the Pimpernel blouse with pussy bow will not bring us long term happiness or look anything like as good as it does on the young, willowy blonde in the ad campaign? Woods wove an interesting argument that people feeling drawn to the unknown known, suggesting that it is because we have grown up with Morris’s patterns that they are desirable because they feel so familiar.
So how may we live now and how may we live better? Should we apply the gaze we would to a Morris pattern, to the way we look at life – not scrutinising it close up, but stand back and see a broader, social design? Can we see beyond ourselves and shift our perspective from the individual to the communal, wider pattern and redesign a global economic model to create a fairer society? Big questions to which we obviously haven’t found the answers. But good that some people are willing to debate them. Others trying to reshape consumer habits are Upcycle Cloth Collection or, from the land of H&M, a Swedish initiative Upcycle Collective. And if you have already succumbed to the Love Is Enough t-shirt for just £8.99 you may want to review that slogan and petition for fairer work practiceshere.