This is one of the most recent exhibitions to open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and it’s a very thought-provoking one exploring the relationship between man, fashion and the natural world. It’s divided into the now familiar format of the historic element downstairs with the larger more modern and forward-looking section upstairs.
This works well because there are displays containing beautifully conserved clothing and accessories dating as far back as the 1600s alongside helpful and fascinating short films and information about the origins and manufacture of textiles using both traditional sources such as cotton, flax, silk and wool but also the more unusual such as pineapple fibre.
The items chosen for display demonstrate both the influence of natural subjects in the design-primarily plants and animals, and the effects of textile production on society as a whole. Cotton and wool for example were a huge part of the success of the UK for hundreds of years and made fortunes for a relatively few people but at vast human suffering for many in the form of slavery, overwork, terrible working conditions and resultant illness. Added to this was the decimation of animal and bird populations to supply the demands of the burgeoning fashion industry with feathers, fur, tortoiseshell, whalebone etc and you have a some uncomfortable viewing.
The origins of the RSPB in the UK started towards the end of the 19th Century when Governments around Europe became concerned for the welfare of bird populations brought to the point of extinction in places.
Ostrich feathers were extremely popular on evening gowns and fans, this little hat is labelled as being the ‘improved starling’ hat with it’s printed feather decoration, the natural beauty of the feathers not being quite good enough presumably?
Seal populations were hugely reduced by the desire for seal fur to make or line coats, muffs and hats, as were whales for their flexible bones which were used in corsets, amongst other things. And then there’s ivory for buttons, umbrella handles and hair decorations, the list goes on…
New resources such as rubber found uses for footwear and to give elasticity to things like stockings and mens braces.
Not everything is doom and gloom in the exhibition, there are some stunning pieces of embroidery and garments which are a visual delight. One of my favourites was an Eighteenth century man’s waistcoat embroidered with Macaque monkeys.
Floral motifs are a perennial favourite both as woven cloth and as embroidered fabric.
I was surprised to discover that using pineapple fibre to make fabric has been around for a couple of hundred years, especially given they were such expensive fruit in their own right.
This evening gown uses pineapple fibre fabric, and the handkerchief is cotton embroidered with pineapple-fibre thread.
Moving upstairs you will discover garments by designers keen to explore and embrace new textiles and technology. Stella McCartney is a well-known exponent of these with her refusal to use any animal-based product and there are some interesting examples of faux leather being made from the waste by-products of the winemaking industry, and ‘leather’ made from a type of mushroom protein! [Incidentally the episode of Desert Island Discs featuring Stella McCartney is very enjoyable and she talks about her use of ethical fabrics and textiles during it] Extraordinary stuff and virtually indistinguishable from real leather. These are ‘designer’ products though so I have no idea of the cost but like any new technology it has to start somewhere and will hopefully filter down eventually to be more affordable.
There were other examples of flora and fauna in the textile design including my favourite Alexander McQueen with a reptile-inspired dress from his Plato’s Atlantis collection.
There is plenty of information and several films which go into greater depth about the effects not only of over-consumption of textiles but also the damage it’s production does to the planet and the workers. Denim, and therefore jeans, for example if the most water-wasteful and polluting of any fabric being produced, we have to address this fact and soon. I’ll be honest and say that I was flagging a little by this time, absolutely not through boredom, far from it, but from information overload. If this is your primary interest in visiting this exhibition then go straight upstairs because there’s so much fascinating, often shocking, but ultimately encouraging information to explore.
Also, did you know that Velcro got invented because a Swiss scientist Georges de Mestral noticed while walking in the Jura during the 1940’s that burrs from plants were clinging to his clothes and his dog’s fur so he investigated further and found they were tiny little hooks. Eventually this discovery became the basis for the product we know today!
Up-cycling is another area that’s looked into, reusing textiles be it unwanted clothes or end-of-line products like ribbon to make new products. Refashioning is not new but it fell out of favour, now it’s making a return.
I could go on, adding more photos of everything but I urge you, if you get the opportunity, to go for yourself and see this exhibition. If you’re interested in fashion and clothing it will really open your eyes to some of the facts about it’s production which you might not be aware of and make you think about how we can improve the situation by our own consumption of goods.
Vivienne Westwood is a leading advocate of choosing fashion wisely, her motto being Buy Less and Buy Well, in other words buy the best you can afford because it’s more likely to have been ethically made from better materials and will last you longer. I know personally I can’t always manage this but by making my own clothes most of the time and wearing them frequently is making a start.
Fashioned from Nature is on at the V&A until next January 27th 2019. I’ve not been sponsored to write this piece, I have my own membership which I use frequently!
Happy sewing, and visiting!