Two weeks ago I was invited by the V&A to the pre-launch of their new exhibition Fashioned from Nature, a critical, informative and elegant exposition of the ambiguous relationship between fashion and nature from the 17th century to the present day.
Fashioned from Nature demonstrates how fashion trends have drawn inspiration from the beauty and power of nature while at the same time burdened and brutalised that same source of inspiration. The exhibition explores how fashion’s constant demand for raw materials damages the environment, showcasing how growing international trade and hypes for new designs required an increased extraction of raw materials at great cost to humans, animals and the environment alike. Without shoving the message down the visitor’s throat, the exhibition presents beautiful clothing and textiles next to paraphernalia documenting the harmful costs that were (and often remain) part of the production process.
While this tension is presented discreetly, it is very much still highly emotive. In the downstairs section of the exhibition, which traces fashion’s developments between the 17th and 19th centuries, beauty is juxtaposed with cruelty (the red-legged honeycreeper earrings in the plumage section are particularly obscene). Beyond the uncomfortable beautiful-but-brutal displays, the downstairs section also shows the tension between technological advancement and utility on the one hand and atrocity on the other – a matter which is especially clear in the rubber section, and the horrendous suffering of the Peruvian rubber harvesters subjugated by the imperial drive for water resistant clothing (I did think it slightly strange however, that the subject of slavery was only briefly mentioned in the cotton section of the exhibition).
Much of the dark sides of these histories are of course not new or unknown, but Fashioned from Nature includes some interesting insights into earlier attempts at challenging the industry’s injustices – an area which is certainly often overlooked. These attempts include 19th century organised campaigns, like the Humanitarian League, against fashion killing animals for their body parts (plumage, fur and ivory) as well as public outcries at the torment of the above-mentioned Peruvian rubber harvesters.
The romp through the 17-19th centuries then brings the visitor to an upper-level dedicated to the contemporary fashion scene. Upstairs, Fashioned from Nature features campaigners that challenge fast fashion and mass consumerism, such as Vivienne Westwood and Fashion Revolution. For the fashionistas, the upper level shows a range of contemporary designs, including innovative cuts from Stella McCartney, a Calvin Klein dress made from recycled bottles for actress Emma Watson, a sustainable Patagonia jacket paired with Veja shoes. But the exhibition’s second level also presents provocative arguments for the role design and fashion can have in creating a fairer, more ethical and more sustainable industry. It draws attention to the use of innovative fabrics, such as Vegea’s use of grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather substitute and Ferragmo’s waste-derived outfit from the Italian citrus industry. An interactive section has spoken-word arguments for cutting consumption volumes and a large world map traces the crazy journey of a simple t-shirt that is produced in three continents before being shipped to the shop. The upper level is not just a continuation of the bizarre paradox of ‘look how beautiful nature is, let’s kill it’ implied in the lower section. The upper level rather brings together the development of fashionable style, industrial trends, and occasional protests at injustices into a meaningful whole: where are we and where do we go from here?
Fashioned from Nature is a thought-provoking and intriguing journey through centuries of contradiction: humanity’s amazement at nature’s beauty and her continuous tendency to destroy it while exploring that beauty. Unafraid of challenging uncomfortable truths – that free trade and capitalism are at the root of the problem – the exhibition certainly presents despair but it also offers hope. And I very much hope that the urgency of radically changing the fashion industry reaches more people through this must see exhibition.
Fashioned from Nature is now open and runs until 27 January 2019. Admission is £12 and V&A members go for free. Advanced booking is advised and can be done in person at the V&A or online at vam.ac.uk/fashionedfromnature. You can also book by calling 0800 912 6961 (booking fee applies). The exhibition is sponsored by the European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC) and G-Star Raw.