Feathers and scales; iridescent fish and jewel-toned beetles; leopard spots and spider silk; whalebone and turtle shells. This could well be a listicle of the natural world's many wonders, just as much as an inventory of the patterns, fabrics, colours and textures that often grace fashion runways and boutiques. After all, fashion shares a deep-rooted connection with the environment, a relationship that's been both symbiotic and destructive.
The industry has turned to the beauty and power of nature for inspiration, even as it has left trails and blazes of destruction in its wake, which, in turn, has prompted commendable sustainability efforts. This multidimensional bond is the subject of Fashioned from Nature, the Victoria & Albert Museum's next major fashion exhibition, which will be held in London from April until January 2019.
The 300-piece show, which seeks to trace the relationship between fashion and the environment since the 1600s, is divided into various segments. One section looks at the havoc wreaked upon the planet and its non-human creatures, all in the name of style.
From raw materials and chemical treatments that contribute to air and water pollution, to animals bred for the sole purpose of being converted into bags and shoes, our quest to look a certain way has resulted in untold damage. Items include a muslin dress decorated with the wing cases of hundreds of green metallic beetles; an eerie-looking cape of cockerel feathers; and a hat made from the fur of pine martens. Most unsettling, perhaps, is a pair of earrings from the 1870s, made from the actual heads of red-legged honeycreeper songbirds.
The exhibition also focuses on the raw materials required in the production of our aesthetic accoutrements. The chronologically arranged display introduces viewers to the primary fibres used in the 17th and 18th centuries – silk, flax, wool and cotton. It also features now controversial materials such as whalebone, demonstrated using an X-ray of a pair of stays from the 1780s, and turtle shell, used in a fan from 1700.
The exhibit goes on to explore how incessant demand for raw materials – natural and man-made – has damaged the environment, and led to the exploitation of both humans and animals. This, in turn, gave rise to campaigners and protest groups who led the way for a more sustainable fashion industry, examples of which are strewn across Fashioned from Nature in the form of artworks, most notably from the Fashion Revolution.
The non-profit collective emerged in 2013, after the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh killed up to 1,500 people and injured 2,500. The factory owners ignored warnings not to use the building after cracks in the structure had appeared the day before, but workers were forced to return to the dilapidated structure.
The movement works on the basis that fashion should feel good. Accordingly, it campaigns for transparency in the industry, and calls on brands and buyers around the world to question the way their clothes are sourced, under the "who made my clothes" hashtag. Bold slogans and posters put together by the collective are on show at Fashioned from Nature, to show how protest movements have drawn attention to the flip side of fashion. These are placed alongside ethical designer Katharine Hamnett's 1989 Clean Up or Die collection, as well as a mannequin that pays homage to an outfit worn by Vivienne Westwood, an outspoken climate-change protester.
Walking the line between problem and solution is a Calvin Klein dress – worn by Emma Watson to the 2016 Met Gala – that is made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. The look was created in collaboration with marketing consultancy Eco-Age, as part of the Green Carpet Challenge, an initiative that seeks to combine style and sustainability. Accordingly, the outfit is constructed of easily separable parts, as it was intended to be re-worn in various ways – given that plastic can never really be disposed of in an eco-friendly manner.
It’s not all gloom and doom, though. If anything, these items – bird heads and all – will put visitors in the mood for the innovative solutions put together by conscientious brands and designers. These include menswear and womenswear pieces by Stella McCartney, a lifelong vegan who is known for her penchant for using only cruelty-free materials; and an upcycled dress by British fashion designer Christopher Ræburn, who works with reappropriated military fabrics.
The advent of technology has played a major role in providing alternatives in the form of eco-friendly fabrics and humane production processes. Fashioned from Nature has a section that showcases and offers a range of existing and potential solutions, such as innovative fabrics and the items they have already been used to create. A clutch bag made from pineapple fibre sits alongside a gown with substitute leather sourced from grape waste. Elsewhere, there's a Salvatore Ferragamo ensemble made from orange fibre derived from the waste produced by Italy's citrus industry; and H&M's Conscious dress made from recycled shoreline plastic.
The exhibition also shines a light on the role that creative design has played in encouraging sustainable fashion. A dress grown from plant roots, for instance, explores how German artist Diana Scherer was able to manipulate seeds, soil and water to train root systems to form a textile-like material. Also on display is Amy’s Glowing Silk Dress, a genetically engineered, bioluminescent dress created by British-Japanese artist Sputniko! in association with MIT’s research lab and the National Institute of Agricultural Science; and a tunic and pair of trousers made from synthetic spider silk, by Bolt Threads in collaboration with Stella McCartney.
Customising and re-wearing clothes – to cut back on wastage – is highlighted through vintage outfits by London designer Katie Jones repurposed for fashion writer and editor Susie Lau for Fashion Revolution Week 2015.
Besides addressing the complexities of the relationship between fashion and nature, the exhibition also takes a lighter look at the playful design influences that flora and fauna have exerted on our style, from the historic to the contemporary.
Designs include: a woman’s jacket from the early 1600s, embroidered with pea shoots; a man’s waistcoat from the 1780s with a pattern of Macaque monkeys; leopard-print gowns from Busvine (1930s) and Jean Paul Gaultier (1997); a 2016 Giles Deacon haute couture dress featuring a delicate pattern of bird’s eggs; and Gucci’s recent stag beetle motif handbag, along with accessories from Christian Dior, Dries van Noten and hatmaker Philip Treacy, among others.