RACHEL FOX
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V&A Fashioned from Nature

Earlier this week I attended the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the Victoria &Albert museum in London. It is the first UK exhibition to explore the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day.

The exhibition was so much larger than I expected spanning two levels. It presents a large array of fashionable dress alongside natural history specimens and innovative new fabrics and dyeing processes. The whole display definitely got me thinking about the materials of fashion and the sources of my clothing. I saw everything from botanical embroidery to earrings made from birds of paradise. It really opened my eyes to how complex the relationship between nature and fashion really is and I can understand why it is controversial. 

I agree with Edwina Ehrman, the curator of the new V&A exhibition who states; “...if we are going to change our mind-sets and the way we consume, we need to remind ourselves what we really value about nature.” 

Spanning 400 years, Fashioned from Nature, explores the garments and accessories that have been inspired by nature's awesome power and beauty throughout history but also investigates fashion's impact on the natural world and the devastating effects of manufacturing on our environment. The exhibition showcased popular styles from as far back as the 17th century up to present day. Items included were things such as an 1875 pair of earrings formed from the heads of two real Honeycreeper birds and a 1860s muslin dress decorated with over 5000 iridescent green wings pulled from live jewel beetles. The exhibition moves through the 18th century, looking at the principle fibres such as flax, cotton, silk and wool as well as the use of feathers, furs and even bones, including Whalebone which I couldn’t quite believe. 

It really revealed the true cost of fashion and also showcased pioneering designers and innovators harnessing fashion’s creativity to develop a more responsible system that respects, protects and celebrates the natural world. 

At the top of the stairs on the first floor, the dress worn by Emma Watson to the Met Gala 2016 stands on display amongst terrariums. It was in collaboration with Calvin Klein and every part of the gown was produced sustainability. Newlife (a yarn made from post-consumer plastic bottles) was used, the zippers fashioned from recycled materials, and the threads of the dress were woven in a reinvented tale of our consumption. The design also has different layers so that separate components could be worn again in different ways. 

The exhibition also presents a range of solutions to reducing fashion’s impact on the environment from low water denim and the use of wild rubber to more conceptual and collaborative projects. There is a section on fashion protest highlights from Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett alongside posters from sustainability campaigners and pieces from sustainable pioneer Stella McCartney.

Possibly my favourite piece from the exhibition, came from Stella McCartney. The bag is made from Mycelium which is the underground root structure of a mushroom. I feel that this development reflects the designer’s commitment to material innovation. This particular garment combination had simple silhouettes and a neutral colour palette. I feel that this makes the concept of nature fashionable and appealing to a wide range of tastes, making sustainability no longer seen as something special. It should be seen as every day and not a luxury in my opinion.

On the other hand, I really thought that the ‘Cat Women’ dress was very striking but not necessarily for the right reasons. The ‘Leopard skin’ draped over the front of this evening gown is crafted entirely from beads. The position of the head emphasises the female form, clinging in an ambiguous embrace. Even though it is not real fur, it looks so realistic and so I really didn’t like it; I’m definitely against animal hunting.

Fashion futures 2030: we can shape the future through our values and actions. Environmental, economic, social, cultural and technological changes will take place over the globe, in turn unfolding the future.

Things we can do in the future:    

  1. Living with less: nature based and globally connected.

  2. Hyper hype” technology paced and economically stimulated

  3. Safety race: regionally located and culturally fragmented

  4. Chaos embrace: people centres and governance re-invented

I now appreciate the amount of in-depth research that occurs between designers, technicians, scientists and the sharing of information that is helping to move views about the origins of our fashion forward. I really feel that we can all make socially conscious decisions in terms of our wardrobes, ultimately benefiting the health of our precious planet. By looking at the wider issue of environmentalism, this show is urging all of us to incite change.

Clothes are something that touch our lives every day, and I appreciate the creation of an exhibition that highlights the importance of questioning where, how and by whom our clothes are made. Watson sums up the whole event effortlessly; "Regardless of social or economic status, we can all dress and shop more mindfully and sustainably. It is so important and timely that we now re-conceptualise what it means to wear and consume, and what is fashionable."

Rachel