Fashioned from Nature attempts to address the aesthetic and material relationship fashion has with nature whilst exploring broader concepts such as ethical consumption, textile innovation and design thinking in creating a sustainable future between the two. Natalia Romagosa visited the display in London.
Striking. A cape of feathers stands out from the 300 carefully selected objects on display at Fashioned from Nature, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest fashion-focused exhibition. The black and green cape, made by the French dressmaker Auguste Champot around 1895, boasts a generous amount of artificially curled cockerel, rooster and pheasant feathers that cover it entirely and become denser at the shoulders to resemble wings.
Presumably worn by a wealthy socialite at prominent events, the feathers would have bounced from one side to the other with the body’s every move and breath, prisoners to a garment and transforming the wearer into a bird. Back then, black was often associated with mourning and death, and is not commonly seen in dresses. The sight would have been impressive, and not always welcome.
The existence of such garments led the Society for the Protection of Birds (now the Royal Society) to campaign against the disastrous effect of the plumage trade on bird populations. In a passionate article published by The Spectator in 1919, British writer H. J. Massingham expressed his support for the campaign, arguing that albatrosses, egrets and other bird species were being hunted down, stripped of their feathers in savage ways and left to die in thousands. And all just for the benefit of fashion.
“How long will women tolerate a fashion which involves such (…) hideous cruelty as this?” he wrote. “To take a walk in the West End to-day [sic] is to be bowed down by a sense of the impotence of good to save the remnants of a wonderful life from universal pillage—for the sake of nothing in this world but a love of trivial display.”
This campaign preceded many, like the ones currently spearheaded by organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Some are graphic, some violent, and most of them evidence negative human actions that are difficult to ignore. While there have been campaigns that have played important roles in securing legislation to stop such practices – more recently that of WWF to shut down ivory trade in the UK – others, such as PETA’s fight against fur, have not entirely succeeded.
Just a few steps away from the cape stand the even more striking ‘Bird-witched’ shoes created more than a century later. Enfolded in woven silk and Nile crocodile, elevated over brass claws and decorated with a long tail of dyed cockerel feathers, these one-of-a-kind shoes are both pleasing and alarming to the eye. Created by Japanese designer Masaya Kushino, who was inspired by artist Ito Jakuchu’s bird paintings, and who collaborated with sculptor Atsushi Nakamura to craft the heels, the shoes could either be interpreted as a homage to birds and nature or a criticism against the use of its materials.
These two objects encapsulate the essence of Fashioned from Nature and the question it puts forward: What is fashion’s relationship with nature?
Human beings have historically turned to nature as a source of inspiration and raw materials, yet the growth in human populations around the world and their ambition for knowledge, innovation and production have resulted in abuse of natural resources. Therefore, it is important to consider if it’s fair for a designer to claim to have sought inspiration in plants and animals to create something beautiful, whilst at the same time causing harm to the resources in question? We need clothes as much as we need nature, and this exhibition invites us to immediately address our relationship with clothes and fashion altogether.
As pointed out by the exhibition’s curator Edwina Ehrman, Fashioned from Nature is a wake-up call to fashion designers and industry professionals. It reminds us of the aesthetic qualities of garments and the delights of producing, promoting, discussing and consuming them, but also makes us question our reasons for being in fashion and the roles we play –both professionally and personally– in shaping the industry.
And it is precisely this questioning that has led numerous brands and designers to rethink their creative and manufacturing processes, not to mention their business models. Featured in the exhibition is a cotton T-shirt and linen skirt outfit by Margaret Howell –a designer who has championed the use of natural fabrics since the 70s, betting on their ability to last long and well; a floral print dress made out of re-used, surplus and sustainable materials designed by Erdem Moralioglu as part of the 2015 Green Carpet Challenge; and a Salvatore Ferragamo woman’s shirt and skirt ensemble made out of ‘Orange Fiber’, a fabric derived from Italian citrus waste.
Inspired by nature, there are Dries Van Noten’s ‘Raja’ coat and ‘Pepa’ trousers showcasing an 18thcentury print of an idealised European landscape paired with a modern picture of El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico; Gucci’s red calfskin bag with stag beetles, a fox and a bee, designed by Alessandro Michele (who was, in turn, inspired by Thomas Moffet’s sourcebook Theatre of Insects); and Philip Treacy’s lime green ‘windswept veil’, a sculptural headpiece made out of feathers impressively defying gravity.
Exhibits at Fashioned from Nature date back to the 1600s. Categorised by their inspiration source, the materials or techniques incorporated in them, or the innovations they bring forward, these objects stand among a dimly lit V&A exhibition space that, although neatly divided and presented, lacks a more natural and interactive environment to highlight nature’s beauty and vulnerability.
The object selection is tastefully curated by Ehrman, and so are the collaborations with Fashion Revolution (a variety of activism posters and slogans) and London College of Fashion (two installations looking at fashion’s present and future), on display at the exhibition. Although not of the scale of recent blockbuster fashion exhibitions, these are all admirable efforts to engage with audiences and invite them to join the cause.
Fashioned from Nature offers a landscape. It lays out some facts and stories, it aims to highlight the efforts of those demonstrating commitment to make changes to the industry, and it even offers a few possible scenarios for what the future may hold for fashion. The exhibition is a reminder that nature is there to inspire and give, but that it is up to us as fashion wearers and as human beings to reimagine and reshape our relationship with it, starting with our clothes.
Natalia Romagosa is a fashion journalist and researcher who has written on the topics of artistic costume, sustainability and culture, among others. Originally from Costa Rica, she is permanently based in London. Natalia sees fashion as a valuable aspect within society, and believes in the industry’s potential to drive positive change.