Blooming Marvellous: A Review of the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature Exhibition

Fashioned From Nature could not have come at a more critical time.

Increased environmental awareness has finally seemed to resonate with the population. Hopefully, and crucially, it will and has made people aware of their own behaviours; how they personally impact the planet on which we live, and share. Reactions to programmes such as BBC’s Blue Planet demonstrate the outrage which is now felt towards pollutant and waste materials such as plastic. Human disasters such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 prompted a widespread reassessment of the fashion industry and called for changes to the production of fast-fashion. I doubt that there could ever be a more poignant time to hold an exhibition detailing the fashion industry’s relationship with nature and the environment. It has become vital to address and discuss humanity’s past and present manufacturing and consumption behaviours – before it is too late to reverse the catastrophic effects that the demand of fashion has on the planet, and on those who live and depend on it.

Fashioned From Nature, the product of senior curator Edwina Ehrman, is a chance for visitors to trace fashion’s fraught relationship with animal species, flora, fauna, and humans themselves, as the global industry frantically searches for new ways to reduce the environmental cost of fashion production. This is not reserved for fashion designers and brands alone, but equally the museum visitor, who is very much reminded that we as consumers and wearers of clothing must take responsibility for the impact the fashion industry is increasingly having on the world.

fashioned from nature poster

Promotional poster for the V&A’s fashion exhibition, Fashioned From Nature, 2018.

The exhibition held in the fashion court of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is organised onto two floors of temporary exhibition space. The ground floor is reserved for garments dating from the 17th to the beginning of the 20th  century. Visitors will find a mass of clothing displayed on the above floor designed by couturiers from the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as other brands such as H&M and Patagonia. The exhibition is chronologically displayed with focus placed on the impact human development and mechanisation has caused on the planet during the Industrial Revolution. It traces how humans have historically exploited animal species and raw materials, identifying what materials are now deemed unethical for use within the fashion industry. The ground floor contrasts with the above level, which concentrates on eco-friendly fashion, new and creative approaches to clothing design and the culture of fashion, and the involvement of the museum visitor through interactive installations, charts and posters. The exhibition showcases the latest developments in advanced technology which aims to transform the cycle and nature of garment production. The ground floor tactfully considers and explains the social, political and economic factors which led to the value and admiration of materials and resources which museum visitors today may find uncomfortable to observe, due to their origins deriving from animal sources. The theme which follows through both floors, contemplates how fashion is continually inspired by nature even if the relationship between fashion and nature is not always healthy nor respectful.

fashioned from nature 18th century

Image of 18th century gowns, bedspread/tapestry and waistcoat on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature 19th century

Image of 19th century garments, including train, waistcoat, and two dresses, displayed at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature protest tshirts

Photograph of protest t-shirts relating to environmental causes, and outfits designed by Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature upstairs view

Photograph of displays on the upper level of the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

When visitors arrive at Fashioned From Nature, they are greeted with the ambient paradise soundscape of birds tweeting and singing in the background of the exhibition. However this peaceful sound is interrupted by the intermittent sounds of water wheels and trees being cut down, the sounds of human mechanisation. This subtly reminds the visitor that this is not a celebration nor fetishization of garments produced by nature, but a reminder of what has been, what is happening, and what the future should not be. It reminds visitors of our increasingly distant and at times dysfunctional relationship with nature. This is a major theme of the exhibition – how should a visitor feel about garments which have used materials deriving from animals, or substances which have directly had a negative impact on other communities or species? It is this uneasy tension present between visitor and object which makes the exhibition appealing; some garments are skilfully produced and it is difficult not to appreciate their aesthetic qualities. On the other hand, for some visitors, it may be hard to negotiate their feelings and relationships towards such contentious objects, particularly those which nearly led to the extinction of some species or caused significant harm to others. They are unsettling and at times emotive objects; stuffed birds used for decoration on hats and for novelty earrings, dresses embroidered with beetle wings, and fans produced from tortoiseshell and mother of pearl. All encourage the visitor to explore and mediate their own emotional responses to such objects.

fashioned from nature fan

T.15-1950. Fan. Hummingbird, feathers of turkey and green parrot, jewel beetles and bone. c1880’s. Rio de Janerio. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 20 Apr. 2018. Photograph taken by author. JPEG.

fashioned from nature more fans

 

Photograph of a variety of fans made from turtle shell, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl. 17th-18th century displayed at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature beetle dress

1698: 1 to 5-2017. Dress. Cotton, with gilded metal thread and Indian jewel beetles. c1888-89. Victorian and Albert Museum, London. 20 Apr. 2018. Photograph taken by the author. JPEG.

fashioned from nature pearl

Photograph of artefacts produced from mother-of-pearl, including buttons, visiting cards and fans from the 19th century, on display at the V&A Fashioned From Nature exhibition 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature birds

Above image: Taxidermic green tailed hummingbirds, egret feather, and bird of paradise dated from the 19th century on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature bird accessories

Earrings made from red-legged honeycreepers, hat ornament made from an African emerald cuckoo, and muff from an Indian Peacock, dated from the 19th century on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

Dealing with garments in a tactful and sensitive manner was an issue I felt the curators and designers of the exhibition handled carefully and sensibly. On the ground level, each display case is dedicated to a particular material; silk, cotton, beaver felt, fur, feathers, insects and rubber to name a few. Each text panel provides context surrounding the first initial uses of the material, where it was harvested and sourced, and how it was transported across the world. In this way visitors can trace materials used to manufacture garments, an insightful concept explaining how clothes were made, who by, where, and from what. It is particularly important to raise awareness surrounding the origins of garments, as most shoppers today are alienated from production processes involved in the creation of clothing. Many will have little idea as to where clothes were manufactured, by whom, and with what material. Curators counteracted this by displaying taxidermic jars of silkworms next to an elaborately produced silk and ermine 18th century mantua; by curating cotton and muslin dresses in display cases which had their floors scattered with raw cotton; by displaying untreated wool next to riding jackets. Text panels equally explained why certain materials were valued, such as the feathers of birds, desired for their everlasting colour and texture, whilst informing visitors when attitudes towards the use of materials such as feathers and fur began to change, coinciding with the founding of several animal rights groups such as the RSPCA and RSPB. Social issues were equally made explicit, with cotton’s sinister relationship to the American slave trade highlighted, and the pollutant nature of the material and its effect on water quality discussed in reference to acid rain formulated from cotton pollutants in 19th century Glasgow and Manchester.

fashioned from nature animal specimins

Photograph of taxidermic displays of silkworms and cocoons, pupa. c1935, on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature court dress

T.252&A-1959. Court dress (Mantua). French silk with silver and gilded silver threads and ermine. c1760-65. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 20 Apr. 2018. Image taken by author. JPEG.

fashioned from nature untreated wool

Photograph of riding coats on display next to raw untreated wool, 18-19th centuries, at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature jacket and petticoat

T.229&A – 1927. Jacket and petticoat. Cotton from the Indian coast, painted and dyed. c1770-89. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 20. Apr. 2018. Image taken by author. JPEG.

fashioned from nature raw cotton

Photograph of raw cotton scattered on the floor of display cases at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature linen

Photograph of cotton/linen garments from the 18-19th century at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature text panel

Photograph detailing a text panel printed with map of transportation and harvesting of silk in the 18th century on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

One fascinating theme evolving throughout the exhibition, is how nature continues to be an enduring source of inspiration for fashion designers. The Victorian fascination with botany, and in particular, ferns, was echoed throughout garment production during the 19th century. Fauna and flora were used for decoration on garments, whilst botanical and animal illustrations deriving from natural history publications coincided with the growth of British museums and an interest in fossil, shell and seaweed collecting and preservation. Exploration which expanded the British empire and war with other nations equally led to the use of new exotic materials including pineapple fibre and lace bark. As a student of fashion history, the introduction to these lesser-known materials was interesting to consider for future and potential research.

fashioned from nature 19th century

Photograph of 19th century gowns on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by the author.

Above images: T. 744-1913. Embroidered evening dress. Silk. c1829. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 20 Apr. 2018. Image taken by author. JPEG.

fashioned from nature pineapple

Photograph of display detailing garments and artefacts created from pineapple fibres and lace-bark at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

The upper level also discussed the continuity of nature’s influence on design; couture garments produced by Christopher Kane in 2014 were inspired by cross-sections of female plant anatomy; a gown part of Alexander McQueen’s ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ collection was also included, and a wild 1997 Jean Paul Gaultier fake leopard-print gown also stood alone on display. One area of this floor is reserved for protest t-shirts and garments designed by activists such as Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood, as well as signs and posters all indicating at an increased dissatisfaction with the operation of the fashion industry during the late 1980’s to the present day.

fashioned from nature jean paul gautier

Photograph of Jean Paul Gaultier ‘Russia Collection’ evening gown on display at the Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Taffeta with beads and rhinestones. c1997. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 24 Apr. 2018. JPEG.

fashioned from nature mcqueen

Photograph of Alexander McQueen dress belonging to the ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ collection on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition. Image taken by author.

On this floor, there is an enormous emphasis on the production of new materials, with cases dedicated to designers who have attempted to use alternatives to natural materials from plant and animal sources – whether good or bad. Garments created by early-twentieth century designers were exhibited demonstrating the detrimental effects of new synthetics such as rayon, viscose and cellulose. The experimentation of popular plastics in clothing design during the 1960’s and the impact and dependence of oil to create these garments was also highlighted. But there was much to get excited about in terms of the future – visitors could see the reconstruction of paper pulp recycled into new garments, new methods of pollution-free dying, vegan garments produced from fruit fibres, and dresses grown – quite literally –  from plant roots. Although these methods still need development if they are to be commercially produced at mainstream level – they offer an insight into the exciting future of eco-friendly fashion production. The curators’ ‘Fashion Futures 2030’ installation offered predictions as to how fashion production and consumption will be managed in the future, with visitors offered to contribute their own responses to aid research currently undertaken by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. This part of the exhibition space also allowed visitors to tangibly interact with garments. When items of clothing were touched, short films were played behind them, detailing the human and environmental costs of clothing production. Ultimately, the consumer is partly to blame for the situation the planet faces itself in. We must do more to tackle the issues underling the fashion industry.

fashioned from nature grassroots dress

Photograph of ‘Rootbound’ dress grown from grass roots, designed by Diana Scherer on display at the Fashioned From Nature exhibition. c2017. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 20 Apr. 2018. JPEG.

fashioned from nature leather

Photograph of dress, bag and belt made from grape leather by Tiziano Guardini, 2017, on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature testtubes

Above images: Photograph of dress and shoes designed by Stella McCartney, organic cotton viscose and silk, c2017 on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Details of the development of Colourfix inside the display case. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature textiles

Photograph of paper pulp recycled garments on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Natureexhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

fashioned from nature futures

Photograph of ‘Fashion Futures 2030’ charts and posters on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, 2018. Image taken by author.

Nature is a source of inspiration and we should not spoil it for the sake of our consumptive behaviours. Yes, we should enjoy fashion, but not at the cost of our planet. Much of this exhibition was reflective and required the visitor to question their own actions, therefore I feel that this exhibition went further than simply to present fashion’s relationship with nature, as it required personal input from the visitor in question. I feel that the themes from this exhibition will continue to have resonance with visitors after their visit – the exhibition is thought-provoking and at times, highly emotive.

I hope this marks a new relationship with fashion and nature.

Tickets for the exhibition can be purchased from the V&A website, and start from 12.00 per person. You can see the exhibition from now until the 27 January 2019. 

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