The Victoria and Albert Museum presents a major exhibition that explores the often complex relationship between fashion and the natural world since 1600. The story of how fashionable dress has constantly drawn on the beauty of nature is told through over 300 objects.
The exhibition provides plenty of evidence that the natural world has always provided inspiration for fashion. One of the earliest pieces in the exhibition, a women’s jacket from the early 1600s, is embroidered with designs of pea-shoots and flowers. There is 1780s man’s waistcoat, expertly embroidered with a pattern of Macacque monkeys. More recently there is a Gucci’s contemporary bag decorated with stag beetle motifs, a 2016 Giles Deacon haute-couture dress features a pattern of bird’s eggs and gowns from Jean Paul Gaultier (1997) and Busvine (1933-4) both feature leopard print.
Few would question, the natural world as inspiration, however including the creatures themselves is slightly different. The exhibition includes a an 1875 pair of earrings formed from the heads of two real Honeycreeper birds and a 1860s muslin dress decorated with the iridescent green wing cases of hundreds of jewel beetles. This was the tip of the iceberg, birds, feathers, furs, whalebone and turtle shells are just a few of the materials that were taken directly from nature.
Raw materials played an important part in the global trade of the 17th and 18th centuries especially silk, flax, wool and cotton. The exhibition includes an 18th court dress that includes a variety of materials from all over the world. At various times, whole nations depended on the revenue from raw materials and international trade grew with the import of precious materials to satisfy the demand for high quality products.
Although the introduction of man-made materials enabled fashionable dress to be available to the masses, the textile industry contributed greatly to the problems of air and water pollution.
Moving upstairs in the exhibition, the emphasis is more on the 20th and 21st centuries and shows a display of posters, slogan clothes and artworks that illustrate the protest movements that have helped draw attention to some of the harmful side of fashion. The exhibition features the outfit worn by Vivienne Westwood whilst protesting against climate change. 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.
Menswear and womenswear from Stella McCartney, is displayed alongside a upcycled dress by Christopher Raeburn. The dress made from recycled plastic bottles worn by actor Emma Watson with a Calvin Klein look is also featured
The exhibition also explores some of the solutions created to reduce fashion’s impact on the environment. These include a dress grown from plant roots by the artist Diana Scherer, who uses seed, soil and water to train root systems into textile-like material, a bio-luminescent genetically-engineered silk dress created by Sputniko! and a tunic and trousers made from synthetic spider silk from Bolt Threads x Stella McCartney. Vegea use grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather-substitute and their Grape gown is on show, as is a Ferragamo ensemble made from ‘Orange Fiber’ derived from waste from the Italian citrus industry and an H&M Conscious dress made from recycled shoreline plastic.
This thought-provoking exhibition provides evidence that fashion has been inspired by nature but has also exploited nature in often cruel and bizarre ways. The exhibition illustrates how this complex relationship has developed over the past 400 years and how the search for raw materials have also impacted on global trade with often serious consequences on producers and suppliers. Part of the exhibition considers how many aspects of this legacy has been challenged in recent years with a series of contemporary designers looking to provide creative and sustainable popular fashion.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information , visit the V & A website here
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