Culture alert: (sound blowhorn) Heads up folks, if you’re looking for a worthwhile dose of London culture then stomach a ride on the underground to South Kensington and visit the Fashioned From Nature exhibition at the V&A. It’s a two pronged affair exploring the inspiration and devastation of nature by the fashion industry from the 1600s to present day. It’s also unwittingly commandeered the attention of my somewhat indifferent companion (note to stories: do not take boyfriend to museum…ever again) so it’s powers of persuasion must be endearing. Open until January 2019, get down there its definitely worth a peep.
The V&A is the word’s best dress up box and the exhibition contains a plethora of candid homages to nature’s natural beauty. Fashion’s fascination with the natural world both seduces and appalls, like the world’s worst love affair. It opens up a Pandora’s box of feelings and emotions. On one hand it celebrates centuries of fashion that have been exquisitely inspired and formed by nature. On the other, it demonstrates how our insatiable sartorial appetite has plundered the natural world with not just a simple need to dress but to do so as opulently and unnaturally as possible. While there has always been a relationship of beauty and inspiration between the two there’s also no denying the conflict around whether or not the fashion industry embraces or is an enemy of the natural world. Clothes have always come at a price but at the detriment of the natural world, is humanity really that vain?
But perhaps fashion is willing to learn from its past and begin to make amends for its cruelty? At least that’s what the exhibition seeks to answer.
The battle between nature and narcissism is cleverly juxtaposed as the exhibition carefully balances startling brutality with spellbinding genius. It’s the obsessional mutilation that really tugs at the heartstrings, laden with conversation starters. In a pair of earrings made from the iridescent heads of two decapitated red-legged honeycreeper birds, a style produced in huge numbers in the 1870s. At first glance an emerald flecked muslin dress from 1868 that presents the wearer as the epitome of discretion and prudence. But a closer look tells a very different story and she is more Lady Macbeth than Mother Nature. The green gleam is coming from 5,000 jewel beetle wing cases. An overcoat lined with the fur of thirty two Russian wolves. A McQueen-esque cape from 1895 with its quarterback shoulders bristling with ebony black cockerel feathers.
Although the 300 exhibits are everything from inspiring, thought provoking and sometimes exquisite, the ever present tension always asking ‘what can we learn from our past mistakes?’ hangs heavy in the air.
The curatorial is no Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty or Dior: The Golden Age of Couture but the exhibition makes no apologies for its determination to incite change. This explains why curator for Fashioned From Nature, Edwina Ehrman, has put a prominent spotlight on sustainability towards the end of the exhibition:
“I don’t want anyone to leave feeling bashed on the head. I want them to leave feeling very optimistic about the future”
As a result, the mood lightens as you travel through the decades. Showcasing today’s industry innovators who are actively targeting the damaging practices of the fashion industry and campaigning for a more sustainable future. Or so it seems? Ok, so there are garments made from innovative fabrics from top designers like a Stella McCartney x Bolt Threads creation made from synthetic spider-silk and Calvin Klein’s ensemble made from recycled plastic bottles worn by Emma Watson.
However, many of these activists use fashion’s ability to reflect social concerns to bring about change through their designs. But the processes remain the same. A string of examples of designers highlighting their environmental concerns through their collections ensues, for example, Alexander McQueen’s S/S 2010 show ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, which references ‘heading back to an underwater future as the ice cap dissolves’.
While Dior’s love for gardens inspired designs such as a rose strewn silk dress, proud of turning his models into living embodiment’s of flowers and making clothes for flower-like women. The theory behind these is all well and good but their ‘ethical’ messages sink between a gaping ravine of hypocrisy and satire. The garments should come with the stipulation *the thought was there. The leading protagonist in this satirical production is H&M, the top dog of disposable fashion, which is acknowledged for having launched a ‘Conscious collection’ in an attempt to provide high street fashion with a reduced environmental impact.
It is the industry’s relentless quest for novelty that is part of the problem when it comes to the small matter of our planet. Starting with the pompous tendencies of bygone eras and culminating in a powerful art movement. In the wise words of Blair Waldorf:
“it’s movement, design, and architecture all in one. It shows the world who we are and who we’d like to be”
Just like our indifferent companion’s scruffy jeans shows the world he’d like to be a painter decorator (rolling eyes emoji). Sorry (not sorry) for the naff gossip girl reference, but it underlines the power fashion has over nature. Nature will remain a compelling source of inspiration for fashion designers and, hypocrisy aside, the exhibition does encourage people to think more about how and where their clothes are made. A powerful manifestation of this is Jean Paul Gaultier’s faux leopard print dress made of thousands of intricately laced beads from 1954. Instantly making the you realise that nature does not need to be over exploited to make a powerful statement. It’s pieces like this that allow you to leave with a warm and fuzzy sensation as the feeling of reassurance that we are starting to marry ethics with aesthetics slowly seeps in.
Remember: it takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it. Slogan stolen from Lynx which began the anti-fur campaign back in the mid 1980’s. With shocking reminders like this it’s definitely left me with an unshakable urge to rethink my wardrobe.
Fashioned From Nature is not just for the fashion junkie. It is well worth a visit even if your not McQueen or Dior inclined as there are some interesting facts to learn a long the way. Do you know, for example, where the expression mad as a hatter comes from?
Have we learnt from our past? I really hope so.