When Oscar Wilde stated, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper,” he wasn’t referring to some grand concept of life and freedom—he was talking about the London department store that has stood on Regent Street since 1875 and whose trademark floral Art Nouveau fabrics have been captivating artistic shoppers for more than a century. Wilde wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm for these miniature swirling prints, whose gentle washed colors evoke the rainy English countryside: His contemporaries—artists, poets, and actors including William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ellen Terry, and James McNeill Whistler—cried “Give me Liberty!” too. The Liberty print penchant even extended to the royal family. In July 1941, Prince Harry’s great-grandmother was photographed with her daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, sporting a triple strand of pearls and a summer frock of a Liberty Tana Lawn.
But inevitably, maybe because the patterns were so charming and the colors so muted, Liberty prints drifted into children’s-clothes land. What could be more adorable than a peacock feather–patterned smock dress or a pair of posy-printed rompers, meant for someone too young to talk, so he or she couldn’t say, “Mommy, I am not an artistic dresser! I want denim overalls!”