F ashion reigns… and doubtless has done since the age of bearskins. However, in the last few centuries this desire to stand out from the crowd has also impacted on the environment as the demand for the latest, brightest and rarest of materials has become a global obsession. Reflecting on this disturbing trend, the V&A is this month launching a groundbreaking exhibition that charts the delicate friction between the aesthetic, the industrial and the ecological.

Speckled Crimson Ruff by Michelle Lowe-Holder, Flock and Fold Collection AW11 (photograph by Polly Penrose)

Speckled Crimson Ruff by Michelle Lowe-Holder, Flock and Fold Collection AW11 (photograph by Polly Penrose)

A pineapple fibre clutch bag, Emma Watson’s Calvin Klein dress made from recycled plastic bottles, and a cape of cockerel feathers are amongst the 300 beautiful and unsettling objects on display at the V&A’s new fashion exhibition. Fashioned from Nature, which launches on 21 April, traces the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world since 1600, illustrating how fashionable dress has recurringly drawn on the beauty and power of nature for inspiration.

Exploring how fashion’s processes and constant demand for raw materials damages the environment – and featuring campaigners and protest groups that have effectively highlighted this issue – it also looks at how the role of design can help create a better, more sustainable fashion industry.

The exhibition showcases contemporary designers of popular fashion such as Stella McCartney, who has long been recognised for her commitment to developing alternative sustainable materials. The exhibition makes much of the fact that world class designers are now committed to sourcing new materials that do not impinge on the health and diversity of our planet. For instance, at the 2016 Met Gala, actor Emma Watson wore a Calvin Klein design made from recycled plastic bottles (created as part of the ‘Green Carpet Challenge’ with Eco-Age, an initiative to pair sustainability with glamour).

Ensemble, Stella McCartney, Winter 2017. © Stella McCartney

Ensemble, Stella McCartney, Winter 2017. © Stella McCartney

In addition, Fashioned from Nature also focuses on the specific use of innovative fabrics like those used by Vegea – a firm producing biomaterials for use in fashion and design. Vegea use grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather substitute and their Grape gown will be on show, as will a Ferragamo ensemble made from Orange Fiber derived from waste from the Italian citrus industry, as well as an H&M Conscious dress made from recycled shoreline plastic.

The past 400 years of fashion come under especially close scrutiny, with objects dating back to the early 1600s. Items include an 1875 pair of earrings formed from the heads of two real Honeycreeper birds – a hugely popular item sold in enormous volume at the time – and a 1860s muslin dress decorated with the iridescent green wing cases of hundreds of jewel beetles. They are shown alongside natural history specimens to indicate the ways fashion has used animal materials in its designs and production.

Close attention is paid to the use of raw materials. Arranged chronologically, the exhibition introduces the main fibres used in the 17th and 18th centuries – silk, flax, wool and cotton – as well as now controversial materials like whalebone, demonstrated by an x-ray by Nick Veasey of a pair of 1780s stays, and turtle shell, used in a fan from 1700. Charting the expansion in international trade, the import of precious materials, and later the introduction of manmade materials, the show’s narrative exposes just how these developments – which brought fashionable dress to the masses – also contributed to rising levels of pollution.

Greenpeace Detox Catwalk in Bandung. © Greenpeace / Hati Kecil Visuals

Greenpeace Detox Catwalk in Bandung. © Greenpeace / Hati Kecil Visuals

A bold display of posters, slogan clothes and artworks shows how protest movements have helped draw attention to fashion’s harmful side. A man’s outfit from Katharine Hamnett’s 1989 Clean Up or Die collection is on show alongside posters from Fashion Revolution, a collective aiming to change the way clothes are sourced, produced and consumed.

Finally, and not surprisingly, the exhibition concludes with a presentation of solutions to reducing fashion’s impact on the environment. This includes a dress grown made from plant roots by the artist Diana Scherer, who uses seed, soil and water to train root systems into textile-like material; a bioluminescent genetically engineered silk dress created by Sputniko!, the MIT Lab and the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (NIAS), South Korea; and a tunic and trousers made from synthetic spider silk by Bolt Threads and Stella McCartney. For those who care about what they wear and how that defines their priorities to the rest of the world, this is simply one of 2018’s must-see events.

 

Fashioned from Nature runs from 21 April 2018-Jan 27 2019

vam.ac.uk

 

At the V&A’s exhibition, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at London College of Fashion, UAL, will present two interactive installations which explore ‘Fashion Now’ and ‘Fashion Future.’ ‘Fashion Now’ will take five iconic contemporary fashion pieces and, using sensors, visitors will be able to explore the unseen impact on nature of the construction, making, wearing and discarding of each item. ‘Fashion Future’ will immerse viewers into the fashion world of the future, inviting us to question what fashion means and show us a future we are yet to imagine.

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