S & S In Review: Fashioned From Nature – V & A Museum

Musings of S & S: In Review look to survey and report on the latest in literature, media & cultural attractions

Sundays spent sauntering the galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum may occur a little more frequently for city goers during the month of dry January. In its penultimate week of showcasing, Fashioned From Nature is the perfect culture thirst quencher for the sartorial and sustainably curious. Constructed with the intention to spark debates and discussion surrounding the symbiotic relationship of fashion and nature since 1600, it poses two seminal questions to its audience. Firstly, how can we design a more sustainable fashion industry? And subsequently, what prized lessons can we learn from the past? In an interview with Vogue, curator Edwina Ehrman sited ‘One very human way in which we’ve expressed our delight in nature, our pleasure in it, our curiosity to learn more about nature is through textiles and fashion’ of which this is evident from the display of over 300 objects across 400 years. 

Edwina’s mission is to inspire attendees to adopt a longer term view, moving away from the archetypical sentiment that sustainability is a luxury to an element that is societal norm, this vision aptly sets the tone for the exhibition. 

A Glimpse Inside 

The first floor of the exhibition is dedicated to tracing the evolution of clothing and textiles chronologically from the 17th to 20th century, where your eyes can feast upon a plethora of materials manifested from the beginning of the mechanisation era. Whether they were derived from animals such as whale bones for corsets, albatross wings, beaver fur for felting or varieties of woollen fibres, fabrics and raw materials have relied heavily on nature. The modern evolution of this interrelationship can be observed later upstairs where a dress created from the threads of silkworms, has been injected with genes from jelly fish. (Suddenly making your latest ASOS order look very basic indeed!)

Effects of empire and industrialisation are mapped in relation to the advancements of the cotton industry and conquering of exotic materials originating from faraway kingdoms. The engagement of the British textile and fashion industry with the flora and fauna of the planet enhanced by the all-important invention of steam trains and a global railway network enabled exploration of the natural world and its foreign botany. Rubber, vegetable ivory, pineapple fibres, lace bark and sea silk are but a few of the materials showcased inspired by the era of the British Empire’s exploration and at times, exploitation. 

The stairway to the next layer of the exhibition transition immediately to the mass modernity of the 21st century fashion industry. Here we witness the rise of the runway, e-commerce, high street retailers, the phenomena of chemically treated man-made textiles and their subsequent outsourced manufacturing along global fashion value chains. 

Highlighted is the rhetoric of ‘chic but toxic’ as core to the characteristics of the modern industry, synthetic fibres conceived from fossil fuels and toxicity of solvents, acids and ammonia in treating processes of these manmade materials. 

As with many fashion exhibitions, an array of designs created by the luxury leaders in the fashion world are on display to promote the possibilities of innovative materials. Pioneers include Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane, John Galliano and Salvatorre Ferragamo as well as organisations such as Orange Fiber who have invented methods to transform waste into opulent fabrics. (You can read the S & Spotlight feature on Orange Fiber here).

Photo Credit: Sustainable & Social

The bespoke design by Calvin Klein, which consists of recycled plastic bottles, for Emma Watson to attend the 2016 Met Gala in line with the Green Carpet Challenge takes centre stage. As a passionate advocate, on her choice of dress for the occasion, Emma stated “Regardless of social or economic status, we can all dress and shop more mindfully and sustainably. It is so important and timely that we now re-conceptualise what it means to wear and consume, and what is fashionable.”. Would Hermione purchase a repurposed, upcycled second hand cloak? We think so! 

Hermione’s hues fashioned from recycled plastic water bottles by Calvin Klein
Photo Credit: Teen Vogue

The degree of thoughtful curation is symbolised by the Fashion Futures 2030 installation, an interactive element to decipher where your beliefs lie in the future of fashions direction. Attendees are positioned with a series of questions that produce an outcome derived from your choices.  It presents four prospective scenarios across a fashion product’s life cycle, with environmental, economical, cultural and technological considerations of how the industry may unfold. Below is a brief synopsis of the four trajectories for those that may not be able to attend as all contain plausible and compelling predictions. 

  1. Living with less – A future that focuses on global connectivity and nature in a world that has prioritised reduction in emissions and resource scarcity. Fashion, in this scenario is cultivated with fewer manmade fibres and purchased through community online stores and strongly embraces life extension through repairs. 
  2. Hyper hype – Technology acts as an enabler to the fashion industry in this future to manoeuvre the planets loss of biodiversity catalysed by climate change. In this ultra-globalised world, the use of data and innovations using artificial intelligence breed lab grown materials which are purchased by consumers online and are maintained through self-cleaning properties. This result would also have unused items collected daily, hello surplus wardrobe space!
  3. Safety race – A fascinating proposition of a regionalised model, polar to that of the interconnected nature of the industry today. Fragmented culturally with regional trade alliances to mitigate the rising tensions induced by water scarcity, segmented societies would compete on action towards climate change as opposed to collaboration. Fashion would originate from regional materials and be created by high profile designers purchased by national brands. Similar to ‘Scenario 2: Hyper Hype’ items would be worn until returned to their origin. 
  4. Chaos embrace – Roles of communities and re-centering the fashion industry on self sufficiency are at the crux of this fourth future trajectory. Retaining and savouring the resources of energy, food and water is a priority and drives fashion makers to reuse materials and revive local techniques, moving away from mechanisation. Garments are purchased locally and repaired by their owners before re-selling to elongate each individual consumer use phase. 

Results obtained throughout the duration of the exhibition will contribute to research for The Centre of Sustainable Fashion

Fashioned From Nature’s call to action. Photo Credit: Sustainable & Social

Final Thoughts

Fashioned From Nature successfully educates without bias on the past, present and future of how the environment and clothing industry have collided. It poses a call to action to ‘mend more and bin less’ in light of the planet’s urgency for a safe operating space. The takeaways are multi-faceted and thought provoking, considering our relationship with materials to their true cost (to nature and society) and how we can encourage transparency, traceability and accountability across a garment’s product life cycle.  Ultimately, clothing and fashionable items hold so much beauty and worth in defining our own personalities and style, we simply need to be generous with assigning the true value the industry, the creations and the producers (planet and people) deserve. 

Fashioned From Nature remains at the V & A until January 27th and tickets can be purchased online here

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