· Forging a connection at Force of Nature at the Museum at FIT ·
Just blocks away from the Highline in the middle of Chelsea, the Museum at FIT hosts a small, but – unusual in New York – free set of galleries wait for lovers of fashion. Curated by Valerie Steele – a well-known and highly respected figure in the critical study of fashion (if you’ve ever read Fashion Theory, you’ve encountered Steele as she is the founder and editor-in-chief), the gallery hosts exhibitions showcasing their collection alongside items borrowed from other collections.
Currently in the Fashion and Textile History galleries, MFIT is hosting Force of Nature. This exhibition explores the relationship between fashion and nature, encouraging the visitors to broaden their perspective of that relationship. From dresses featuring printed flowers or butterflies, fur or even real birds on hats, the gallery also displayed more abstract connections.
Charting trends in fashion and their relationship to scientific discoveries, the exhibition expanded the visitor’s idea of how fashion and nature interact and influence each other. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, as the Space Race was on the world’s mind, fashion piggybacked on the trend. A beautiful, black New-Look-style dress was on display with sparkling embellishment reminiscent of the Milky Way.
A full, length, long sleeved red dress caused a double take; its simple shape, coloring, and style did not immediately call to mind nature. However, sketches in the background demonstrate how its inspiration came from lobsters. A pale pink scalloped dress and light blue day dress similarly surprised with inspiration coming from mollusks and creatures from under the sea. A silver dress and a gorgeous black, tulle Charles James gown were inspired by butterflies in their chrysalis. Driving home the point is a simple Elsa Schiaparelli tea dress with a butterfly print – this connection is much more blatant. Though not strictly chronological, the exhibition charts the evolution of scientific discoveries. From the Enlightenment when newly discovered plants species were printed on dresses to Alexander McQueen’s 2009 Natural Dis-tinction, Un-Natural Selection, the exhibition features gorgeous garments from the late 1700s to the present day. Two recurring designers? Charles James and Alexander McQueen, both heavily influenced by the natural and discoveries in natural science.
I’ll admit, I only went to the exhibition because it was my first opportunity to visit MFIT and because I’d seen some of the intriguing garments on their Instagram. The relationship between fashion and nature didn’t necessarily appeal to me, but the exhibition changed my mind. From beautiful nineteenth century gowns and on-trend garments from the 1920s to 1960s intrigued me and inspired me to think more broadly about the relationship between the two.
I’d never thought of trends in science having an influence on fashion trends, but the exhibition illustrated this quite clearly. I felt silly – the trend for eco-friendly, ethically produced fashion is a trend inspired by discoveries about nature. In turn, it also made me think that maybe there were other forces inspiring fashion that I find counterintuitive. What more could a fashion exhibition ask for?