One of the key exhibits in the V&A’s new exhibition Fashioned From Nature is a 19th century French hat decorated with a stuffed starling. Nestled in a bed of painted goose or swan feathers, the little bird’s own modest plumage is mixed with dyed feathers from more exotic options.
Even at the time of its making, the hat attracted alarm and criticism. “It’s horrible but many people are transfixed by it,” admits curator Edwina Ehrmann. “There are found reasons for this mania for decorating costumes with birds in the 19th century but it was very odd and it was fashions like this that led 19th century campaigners to pledge to no longer wear animal products.”
Set to be one of the V&A’s most seminal exhibitions yet, Fashioned from Nature traces the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world, from 1600 to the present day, through 300 beautiful, often deeply unsettling objects.
The word ‘complex’ here is an understatement. At its most innocent, the exhibition shows how fashionable dress repeatedly draws on nature for inspiration.
In the 17th century mens waistcoat embroidered with a pattern of playful Macaque monkeys and a woman’s jacket from the 1600s, decorated with pea shoots and flowers; in Giles Deacon’s bird egg-print couture and the dress from Alexander McQueen’s Plato Atlantic collection, wearers are turned into Pans and Floras, embellished and enhanced by association with the natural world.
At its most tragic, however, the exhibition demonstrates the devastating impact of fashion on the natural world, through grotesque trends for animals skins to the intensive processes of today’s voracious – and ever expanding – industry.
Alongside the 19th century dress crafted from thousands of iridescent jewel beetle wings sits a photograph of a very beetle the garment was decorated with; ditto the display in which the stuffed stoat gazes blankly over a magnificent 18th century court dress from Mantua, its bodice decorated sewn with ermine tags, the tail tips of the animal’s long dead compatriots.
Time and again, in photographs and artefacts, the visitor is reminded that, in making many of these exquisite items, equally – if not more – exquisite beings lost their lives. Plucked from their natural habitats, and from life itself, the animals and birds become symbols of the most destructive sides of fashion’s fascination with nature.
This is where the show is at its most contemporary. Gone is the notion of the fashion exhibition as a parade of outfits, waiting to be feted for aesthetic appeal. Instead, Fashioned From Nature reconnects the viewer with the most important part of any garment: its raw materials.
“I’ve been a fashion curator for over 30 years and I’ve always wanted to do an exhibition about the way fashion interacts with nature,” explained Ehrmann at the launch in April. “[At first], it was much more about the inspiration fashion gets from nature but [then] I felt this approach was just no longer viable.
“We’re at a tipping point in public opinion about fashion, nature and sustainability and the exhibition needed to reflect that.”
It’s curious, I mention to Ehrmann, how humans appear to venerate nature, on the one hand (in order to create a pair of earrings from the heads of honeycreepers, you must think them pretty) while facilitating its slaughter on the other.
“It’s one of the paradoxes,” agrees Ehrmann. “I was showing a man round the other day and he said “I’m really intrigued by this exhibition but I find it very unsettling. And I don’t think I can ever look at that beautiful floral print in the same way again.’”
“Somebody else [asked me if I want] to make people feel guilty. I do not want to make people feel guilty at all [but] I need to remind people what we love about nature. If we don’t keep reminding ourselves what we love about nature, why should we care?”
It’s not all doom and gloom. Move upstairs and the narrative brightens, through the work of designers dedicated to new ways of making clothes. Here, the visitor encounters work by ethical pioneer Stella McCartney; award-winning designer, Christopher Raeburn, who creates functional fashion from military surplus; Bruno Pieters, former design director of Hugo Boss, founder of the one of the first fashion website’s focussing on transparency, and any more.
Spirits continue to lift. The idea of the circular economy, where waste becomes resource, is celebrated in its most dramatic form, in the Calvin Klein gown and train created from recycled plastic bottles and worn by Emma Watson at the 2016 Met Gala.
“We need to get over the idea that recycled polyester or nylon is bad,” adds Ehrmann, emphatically. “When I asked fashion designers “why don’t you say [a particular piece of clothing was] recycled?”, they’d reply, “Well, people don’t like that. They’d think we’re passing them off.” We need to change attitudes.’
Recycling and up cycling help answer the issue of waste. Meanwhile, alternatives to other resource-heavy materials such as plastics and nylons are also emerging. Here, Ehrmann positively revels in a plethora of new ideas including a dress grown from plant roots by artist Diana Scherer and a bio-luminescent genetically-engineered silk dress created by Sputniko!, the MIT Lab and the National Institute of Agricultural Science in South Korea.
To replace leather, now increasingly recognised as toxic to people, planet and the animals whose bodies it is taken from, scientists provide plant-based equivalents – from grape waste and pineapple fibre to mycelium (Bolt Threads’ dynamic collaboration with McCartney).
The exhibition doesn’t stop at examples of fashion, good and bad. A ‘Protest Island’ celebrates the dynamic political voices of activists such as Vivienne Westwood, Katharine Hamnett, Greenpeace and Fashion Revolution. Two installations Future Now and Fashion Future, developed by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, ask the visitor to explore the hidden impact on nature of five iconic fashion pieces and to imagine what the future of fashion might actually look like.
Exciting and utterly prescient, the exhibition’s multi-dimensional approach both stimulates and – hopefully – inspires change.
Ehrmann is once again musing on the starling hat. “It’s an example of the human urge to improve on nature ….” she muses. What people are starting to realise however – and what the exhibition is implicitly suggesting – is that nature is very hard to improve on. Humans, on the other hand ….