Style and Sustainability

Fashioned from Nature – inspiration, exploitation and innovation at the V&A

Fashioned from Nature – inspiration, exploitation and innovation at the V&A

Finally, the Hale team made it to the V&A’s Fashioned from Nature exhibition. The displays explore the complex, disturbing and often beautiful relationship between fashion and nature. Covering clothing from the 1600s to the present day, there’s a wealth of stunning and thought-provoking items to browse. And the exhibition leaves you in no doubt of the debt fashion owes to nature, both in terms of inspiration and exploitation.

Cruel beauty

There are two distinct parts to the exhibits. The first takes you through fashion’s long history of sourcing inspiration and raw materials from nature. The V&A archives have rendered up some captivating examples of fashion across the ages: the forms of flowers or ferns are reinterpreted in a succession of fabrics; silhouettes change to incorporate new materials or methods and embellishments vary according to the latest trend.

Behind the glass cabinets is a clear tension between beauty and ethics. The pieces chosen for display here were all stunning. But some are baffling in their cruelty – hats trimmed with whole stuffed birds, a dress whose glittering trim is in fact beetle wings. The accompanying videos and text spoke to a litany of exploitation. The innovative dyeing methods polluted waterways. The cleverly constructed corsets were fashioned from whalebone. The cheap cotton was harvested by slaves. Environmental cost and human cost disregarded for pure profit.

The sheer scale of the devastation caused by the fashion industry is difficult to depict, but the exhibition made clear that questioning the ethics of the industry is by no means a modern preoccupation. The cases feature 19th century protests against the use of feathers in fashion, and concerned remarks made by journalists horrified by the flaunting of real fur – death lurking on the shoulders of beauty.

The exhibition is sponsored by the European Confederation of Flax and Hemp and a wall of flax fibres greets you at the entrance.

Action and innovation

Stepping from the close confines of the historical section into the well lit, upper level was, I’m sure, an intentional contrast. Here, the focus shifts to contemporary designers, innovators and influencers. There are items on display clearly inspired by nature. Others aim to improve the sustainability of the fashion world. Information abounds on new materials or methods that could reduce fashion’s impact on the environment.

The exhibition makes it clear that our love for the natural world is a long-term obsession that fashion has always drawn on. It also highlights how critical it is that the industry actively engages in sustainable manufacturing – for the environment and its own survival.

The Fashioned from Nature exhibition is on until 27th January. We’d recommend a visit if you’re interested in sustainable fashion. Have you already been? What did you think?

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