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1913 Womens fashion – The Omega Workshops

April 6, 2016

Roger Fry had a dream – it was a dream where artists deserved to make a living, and the products of their fertile minds didn’t have to be restricted to canvas. Artists could design furniture, wallpaper and fabrics and in 1913 he founded the Omega Workshop whose designs should decorate the finest of homes and people alike. Womens fashion 1913 was shocked by his new ideas.

Omega Workshops

Omega Workshop’s bold and colourful designs, worn by the brave, predate the Jazz age by a decade. Roger Fry was also part of the Bloomsbury Group, a gang of well heeled intellectuals including artists and writers, who “Lived in squares and loved in triangles”, according to Dorothy Parker. Their sex lives were wonderfully intertwined, not to mention tangled, and there were all sorts of marriages and intermarriages and mistress-taking, not to mention marriages to one’s father’s former lover.

1913 Womens fashion  – Bold Artistic Influences

The love life of the Bloomsbury group is often felt to be more fascinating than their artistic output, but it is a combination of both that has held the public interest for so long. But look at these fabrics! Imagine them compared to the prevailing fashion for brocades and heavy, rich colours of late Victorian homes – the golds and the dark greens and dark reds. And more than that, imagine them on clothing. Fabrics patterns at the time could involve a pinstripe or a tiny floral repeat, but this is garish – deliberately so. Omega designers were influenced by the experimental painting of the Fauves – “The Beasts” of Modern Art as well as the Cubism of Picasso and Braque.

1913 Womens fashion  – the Bloomsbury Group

Roger Fry set up the workshop primarily with the artist Vanessa Bell, with whom he had been having an affair since 1911 but had broken up with that year (1913). However, he was still very much in love with her and remained so for many years. At that time, Fry was married to the artist Helen Coombe, but she had been  committed to an institution in 1910 after suffering mental instability. Fry was bringing up their two children alone. Vanessa Bell, at that time, was married to Clive Bell, but started the affair with Fry when they all went on holiday together. The affair ended when Vanessa started a different affair, with Duncan Grant, who also produced designs for the Omega Workshop.

 

The three artists often worked on projects and art works together. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell had a child together, Angelica, whom they pretended was Vanessa and Clive Bell’s daughter, although everyone but poor Angelica knew otherwise. Vanessa Bell later divorced Clive, but remained close to Duncan all her life, living together although he had a lot of homosexual relationships at the same time. One of his lovers was David “Bunny “ Garnett, who went on to marry Angelica, much to her parent’s horror. Fry meanwhile took up with Nina Hamnett, another Omega Workshop artist ,and eventually found lifelong happiness with Helen Anrep, who, although she was married to the artist Boris Anrep, lived with Fry until his death.

 

Phew! I told you it was complicated – and that’s without bringing other Bloomsbury stalwarts Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville West, Lytton Strachey and the rest of the eminent circle.

1913 Womens fashion  – The Omega Workshops

Back to the Omega Workshops. The Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet and was a shorthand in Victorian times for “The last word”. The Omega sign was stamped or painted onto products in lieu of a signature, as the idea was that as a collective pieces should not be signed individually. Some of the artists were well known and Fry was keen that objects be vauled for thier intrinsic beauty, not the cachet of the designer’s name. However, although the artists worked in collaboration it is still possible to make out individual styles and so museums can usually tell who designed each article, hence the attributions given to these fabrics.

 

The workshop was set up, not as a profit making enterprise but as an opportunity for artists, and was funded by affluent friends, like Clive Bell and the playwright George Bernard Shaw, as well as Fry himself. Roger Fry not only funded Omega Workshops at its inception but supported it through the difficult war years in the belief things would pick up later. However it was never really self supporting. The artists involved came not only from the Bloomsbury group but included young and promising students from the Slade School of Art, as well as up and coming names like Percy Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash and Henry Gaudier-Brzeska. Most of these artists weren’t employed on a contract or for any significant period of time; they did a project or two and then dropped away. However, fair working conditions were observed, as one artist wryly noted:

 

“I am again needleworking here. What a lot of funny jobs I’ve done & who ever thought I’d turn into a dressmaker? All the morning I’ve been making a green, & yellow & black & white & khaki check dress for Nina Hamnett & now I’m having my lunch hour so stipulated in the Workshops Act…” (letter from Christine Nash to her brother John Nash).

1913 Womens fashion  – Outrageous dress fabrics

The Omega Group produced everything a home or person could need. So glass and pottery, furnishing fabrics (used for dress fabrics too), wallpaper, carpets, furniture, candlesticks, fans, screens, and lots of other objects were made. Nothing was inconceivable.

 

The designs were not usually made up by the artist personally. Instead small specialist factories across Europe were employed. In addition Omega Workshops employed a house seamstress, Joy Brown, who made many of the fabrics up into “Artistic Dress”. Fry was keen that the creations were not to look too mechanical however, and techniques were developed to introduce irregularities into prints or lengths of woven cloth so that it seemed to still show the artist’s hand as a painting would.

 

This all sounds a great deal like previous efforts of firms like Morris & Co (founded 1861), the collaborator workshop of William Morris who also worked with prominent artists to produce hand made artefacts for the home, in order to beautify every day existence. But Roger Fry didn’t have quite the same ideals in mind. He wasn’t actually protesting against machine made goods, or driving for social reform, but rather wanted to bring fine art into homes without it being labelled as “decorative arts”.

1913 Womens fashion  – Disreputable friends

The people who supported the initiative were mostly friends and colleagues – rich ones. A grand opening of the workshops was planned. Vanessa Bell wrote to Fry:

“We should get all your disreputable and some of your aristocratic friends to come – and after dinner we should repair to Fitzroy Sq. where would be decorated furniture, painted walls etc. Then we should all get drunk and dance and kiss. Orders would flow in and the aristocrats would feel sure they were really in the thick of things.” Indeed there were decorated rooms in Fitzroy Square, the home of Omega Workshop, where the showrooms and workrooms coexisted side by side — three of them, done entirely in the group’s signature style. And the orders did come in, including several for entire interiors.

 

“The aristocratic friends” who came and bought included Madame Vandervelde, Lady Cunard, Lady Ottoline Morrel, and Princess Lichnowsky, wife of the German Ambassador. The “disreputable” writers and artists which they were thrilled to mix with included E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell and Ethel Sands. The artists types were just as enthusiastic about buying as the aristocrats were, despite the prices being very high due to the semi-hand made nature of production – and the inefficient techniques used to make the articles.

Womens fashion 1913 – an acquired taste

However, the designs were an acquired taste, despite such friendly patronage. Doubtless if you knew the artists involved and could hear first hand their enthusiasm for the the idea the products were very attractive and desirable, but the range had never had more than a lukewarm response from those outside of the circle, especially critics. Members of the public weren’t flocking, and art critics didn’t see the work as art, despite the group holding regular exhibitions and treating it as such. In addition, the designs were seen as inharmonious. They were very ahead of their time – the Fauvism and Cubism which so inspired them had a similar mixed response at their inceptions.

 

In October 1913 Omega received a coveted invitation to design a room at the Ideal Homes Exhibition. Although the artists were excited, disagreements arose as to what to include in their stand. This lead to four of the artists who worked for Omega, Wyndham Lewis, Frederick Etchells, Edward Wadsworth and Cuthbert Hamilton storming out, and not only that, announcing tier resignation via a letter sent to all the shareholders and customers of the firm. In it they poured scorn on Omega, its products and particularly its founder. ‘No longer willing to form part of this unfortunate institution, we the undersigned have given up our work there’.

 

With its own artist, the public and critics against it, in 1919 Omega closed, just six years after opening. Roger Fry outlined the difficulties that had lead to its demise in a letter to his friend Michael Sadler.

Disaster strikes the Omega Workshop

“The utter indifference…of the public to what we have attempted has bought Omega to disaster…

I kept it alive by doles out of my own pocket during the war believing that some kind of revival might take place when it was over. Now I have come to the end of my tether. I have lost £2000 and five years of gratuitous hard work & I can’t waste more on a country that regards the attempt to create as a kind of Bolshevism. Anyhow art in England must get on as best it can without me…”

Letter from Roger Fry to Sir Michael Sadler, 2 June 1919

 

In the event, art in England didn’t get by without Roger Fry, as he became a noted art critic. Vanessa Bell’s reputation was unharmed by the experiment, and she continued to design prints and textiles as well as to paint afterwards. Duncan Grant developed a reputation for mural painting, which he did together with Vanessa Bell, as well as having a distinguished art career.

 

 

Nina Hamnett and Winifred Gill modelling dresses at the Omega Workshops

1913 Womens fashion – Maud fabric 1913 Vanessa Bell for Omega Workshops

Margery fabric Vanessa Bell 1913 for Omega Workshops.

Margery fabric in a different colour way.

1913 Womens fashion – Margery fabric, Vanessa Bell 1913 for Omega Workshops.

Vanessa Bell modeling a dress of her own design for Omega Workshops.

Roger Fry by Roger Fry, oil on canvas, 1930-1934 National Portrait Gallery

Duncan Grant

Mechtilde fabric, 1913 Omega Workshops

Waistcoat made with Cracow fabric, Duncan Grant for Omega Workshops 1913

Omega design letterhead.

Duncan Grant fan for Omega Workshops 1913.

Waterlily table, Duncan Grant for Omega Workshops 1913

Table lamps by Roger Fry for Omega Workshops.

Omega Workshop invite 1913

Amenophis fabric Roger Fry Omega workshop 1913

“Pamela” fabric 1913 Vanessa Bell for Omega Workshops.

The Omega Workshops Showroom, 1913

White fabric by Vanessa Bell for Omega workshops

White Fabric, alternative colour way.

 

 

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