Natural Style?

· Fashioned from Nature at the V&A · 

In October, BBC Three premiered an episode of Stacey Dooley Investigates on the fashion industry. Titled “Fashion’s Dirty Secrets,” Dooley looked into the exploitative practices of the fashion industry with special emphasis on its environmental impact. It’s hard for me to believe that there are people out there who don’t, on some level, know how detrimental their clothing habits are to our planet, but it’s clear that more and more people are attempting to shed light on this. One such institution is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Opening on 21 April 2018, the day before Earth Day, Fashioned from Nature, the V&A’s major fashion exhibition of 2018 focuses on the fashion industry’s environmental impact going back 400 years. This is not a new problem it demonstrates through garments, accessories, raw material, and other artefacts. It asks two questions of the visitors: “How can we design a more sustainable fashion industry?” and “What can we learn from the past?”

Like many of the V&A’s fashion exhibitions, it is staged in the center of their fashion wing and covers two floors. Again, like many of their recent exhibitions, it stages historical garments on the ground floor and more contemporary fashion upstairs. This allows the visitor to encounter the deep history of fashion’s impact on the environment, and alternatively nature’s impact on fashion.


The exhibition starts with three materials that were popular dating as far back as the 1600s that come from species that are endangered today: ivory, turtle shell, and mother-of-pearl. This is an apt introduction as most of us know the horrendous impact the ivory trade has had on elephant populations. Beautiful fans feature the materials while a 17thcentury men’s waistcoat proudly displays mother-of-pearl buttons.

Below the description of the display, a handy world map traces the trade in these materials between 1600 and 1800. These maps are seen throughout the ground floor and highlight how fashion has also impacted trade over the years. This, in turn, has an impact on the environment as we see today with imports from countries with looser labor and environmental laws that allow for lower prices.


Examining trends up until the 19thcentury, the exhibition looks at both fashions that were inspired by nature and fashions that took from nature, and sometimes both. A court-dress, or mantua, is made from silk – silkworms are displayed next to it – lined with ermine as the pattern echoes the look of ermine in the silk. A stuffed stoat shows the small creature that produces ermine prompting the visitor to think about how small the animal is compared to how much ermine was used. Descriptions of the polluting process of dyeing silk contrast with the pretty pink of the dress.

More animals sacrificed for fashion are highlighted: whalebone or baleen for corsets and women’s bonnets, beaver pelts for felting, feathers for trimmings, fur for warmth… The list goes on. A box of twenty taxidermy hummingbirds makes you pause over how many animals have been sacrificed for the sake of fashion over the years. There’s even a dress embellished with over 5000 beetle wings. Though it has a beautiful effect, you can’t help but think of all the beetles that were sacrificed in the making of it.

Not all is quite so macabre, though. Different fabrics are highlighted, though they all have their own impact on the environment. Flax, from which linen and lace are made, polluted water as rotting stalks were “retted” to soften the material. Wool also polluted local rivers with oil, grease, soap, dirt, and solid waste during the various processes required to produce it. Though cotton was originally produced sustainably (more on this later), it, of course, had its ethical issues and again polluted water when it was dyed. No matter how innocent-seeming, it’s clear that any clothing production has an impact on the environment in some way.

Though the exhibition clearly emphasizes fashion’s effect on the natural world, it also displays garments that were inspired by nature. Floral prints and embroidery are popular across the centuries. Botanical drawings that were popular in the mid-1800s inspired designs on dresses as did seaside creatures and plants such as seaweed. These designs seem less harmful, but are, of course, made on the same materials outlined above that still negatively impact the environment.



The ground floor concludes with a variety of natural materials that were discovered or collected in the 1800s that had commercial potential. Most never gained traction, but one is still a material we use today: rubber. Made from the sap of Para rubber trees, this was a groundbreaking discovery, but it led to the loss of many of these trees in the Amazon which consequently harmed the ecosystem. Other discoveries included pineapple fibre, vegetable ivory, and lace-bark. This last one is just what it sounds like: a tree which has a lace-like material inside. Native to Jamaica, when it was discovered by tourists in the 1880s, it, like the Para rubber tree, was severely affected by demand.


These alternative materials in mind, visitors head up the stairs where they are greeted by a much more recent piece of clothing. The black-and-white number is much more modern, hinting at what’s to come upstairs, but is also made from an alternative material: recycled plastic bottles. Worn by sustainable fashion advocate Emma Watson to the Met Gala in 2016, it’s a perfect introduction to the second floor which focuses on the twentieth century, concluding with new developments in sustainable fashion.


Continuing somewhat chronologically, the exhibition continues with some of the new, extremely harmful materials being used in the early twentieth century. Artificial silk and rayon were both popular alternatives to expensive silk, but their production polluted both water and the air. Production of one of the artificial silks, cuprammonium, is even banned in the US. Fur and feathers were still being used en masse, and one set of gloves and hat uses feathers from the monal pheasant, which is now legally protected. I must admit that iridescent feather-adorned gloves were one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition.


The exhibition continues explaining how mass-manufacturing increased the pollution and damage being done by the fashion industry. This accelerated in the 1970s as manufacturing moved overseas to countries with lax environmental laws. However, since the 1980s, the industry has also become more aware of its environmental impact and has taken steps to lessen its harm. New materials have been developed, classic styles have been attempted, but even as this happens, new chains that specialize in fast fashion have popped up, exacerbating the problem.

Like downstairs, a section looks at how 20thand 21stcentury designers have been inspired by nature. A show-stopping Jean Paul Gaultier gown with what appears from afar to be a full leopard skin draped across the bodice and into the skirt. However, it’s revealed that the “leopard skin” is, in fact, made from beads. Two amazing “hats” by Philip Treacy show inspiration from both flowers and something as elusive as the wind. Of course, Alexander McQueen is featured with a dress from his final collection which has digital prints of amphibious skins. McQueen was often inspired by the natural world.



Before the exhibition turns to some of the solutions designers are using to lessen their impact on the environment, a mannequin protest features signs and clothing worn to protest climate change in recent years. A placard asking, “Who made your clothes?” references the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that shed light on some of the harmful practices used to make our clothing.

Finally, the exhibition looks at contemporary designers who are trying to effect change in their own work. Though some of these designers work to this end continually, I noticed that many of the designs featured were one-offs such as a design from H&M’s Conscious Collection and a gown by Erdem for the Green Carpet Challenge. It made me wonder why these designers and retailers, who clearly are aware of their impact and can make more sustainable clothing (as demonstrated with these projects), haven’t transitioned to solely sustainable methods. It’s great that H&M has its Conscious Collection, but the small collection does not come close to evening out the huge amount of fast fashion H&M produces constantly. Similarly, if Erdem went to the lengths to produce a collection that was environmentally responsible in 2015, why isn’t he still? It’s frustrating to know that designers have the resources and know how they can be more sustainable but continue to work irresponsibly on a regular basis.

The exhibition concludes on a slightly more optimistic note, however, as it displays new technologies that are being developed to produce clothes responsibly. A Synthetic Biology method of dyeing is low-water and pollution free. A “leather” made from mushroom roots can be made in 10 days to any size. A designer who has tried to work as sustainably as possible since the launch of her label in 2001, Stella McCartney, demonstrates that it is possible to produce popular, beautiful, sustainable clothes. On display is the first ever handbag made from the mushroom leather: one of McCartney’s signature Falabella bags.


If they’re anything like me, visitors come away from this exhibition wanting to do more. Since watching the Stacey Dooley fashion documentary and visiting this exhibition, I think more about what I buy. How often will I wear a new item? Is it something very trendy that will only be in style for a few months? Will it last? Do I know where it came from? If we all start to think a little harder about our fashion and consumption choices, I do believe and hope that we can start to make a little difference. We can start holding brands accountable through our purchases (or lack thereof) and hopefully begin to effect real change.

Because, as this exhibition demonstrates, we have been exploiting nature for the sake of our clothes for hundreds of years. But thanks to increases in population and the spread of mass-manufacturing, that exploitation has become even more dire.

The V&A asks us what we can learn from the past. We can learn that our fashion choices have devastating consequences on the natural world even as it is inspired by it. We must act to preserve that world in order to continue inspiring.

The future of fashion depends on it.


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