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10 things you need to know about the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition

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Georgina Wilson-Powell

2 May 2018

This spring's blockbuster exhibition at the V&A Museum is all about sustainable fashion. As part of the wider movement for a more sustainable form of mass consumption, the V&A offers up this look at how nature has both inspired and been impacted by our global thirst for the latest fashion trends. 

We had a sneak peak, private tour before the exhibition opened and this is what we came away thinking about...

Fashion has always needed a global supply of materials

Fashioned From Nature spans the last few centuries from 1600 to today and looks at the waves of interest in materials that have scarred the environment - from rubber plantations that wiped out huge numbers of indigenous people to trades in beaver fur, whalebone, mother of pearl and tortoiseshell and toxic pollution from viscose, nylon and chemical dying.

Fashion has always instigated global trade routes to source the latest luxury items - the global supply chains we have now are certainly more complex but they’re not new. To understand the ecological mess we're in, we have to go back right to the start when the silhouettes of today's routes for fashion materials were being stitched together.

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Emma Watson has donated the Calvin Klein dress she wore made out of recycled materials

Fashion’s relationship with nature is incredibly complex

As much as fashion has damaged the planet, it’s an industry that has always been inspired by the wonders of Mother Nature. The exhibition treads a fine line between the celebration of nature and insight into the darker side of our shopping habits.

The exhibition includes flower-laced fabric and nature inspired clothes as far back as the 17th century. There are seaweed prints, spun glass feathers and Australian inspired fauna on dresses amongst the displays. But the essence of why we're so intrigued by nature is captured in a series of soundscapes and exhibits from the Natural History Museum.

Nature has always inspired our creative minds but we think of it as a idealised place rather than the support system for everything we do. As much as looking at the clothes, Ehrman wants us to think about what we’ll lose if we don’t act to stop fashion’s impact on climate change. 

Fashionistas used to wear bird heads as earrings

Yup really. And iridescent birds at that. There’s a tray of dead Red Legged Honey Creeper birds as tiny, tip of the iceberg example into the cruel trade but it’s an arresting starting point to look at how fashion trends have fuelled crazes for natural materials and wildlife that has had a lasting impact across the world. These tiny birds were almost wiped out during the craze for feathers in the 19th century.

"I want to take people back and think about where our clothes come from, how do we make them and what with and how have these materials impacted the environment?"

We aren’t the first century to care fashion’s impact on the environment

Ehrman points to several cases downstairs in the exhibition that have smaller items in them - from pineapple fibre to vegetable ivory - except these aren’t 21st centuries tech developments but 19th century alternatives.

As demonstrated by the birds’ heads, feathers were big business during the 19th century, but a proactive campaign against their use almost eradicated the demand.

“Our ancestors did care, deeply in some cases,” explains Ehrman. “The campaign against feathers was one of the earliest environmental campaigns and it was pretty successful. A similar one against fur was less so but also people needed a lot more fur back then as there was no heating and travelling was a lot less comfortable.”

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Nature has always inspired our creative minds but we think of it as a idealised place rather than the support system for everything we do

Our shopping habits changed long before the boom in fast fashion

“I think we’ve lost touch with fabric. Fashion today is very much about the trends, about ephemerality, just for the moment,” says Ehrman. “Fewer people make their own clothes, synthetic fabrics make everything more complicated and people gave up after the 1950s.”

“I want to take people back and think about where our clothes come from, how do we make them and what with and how have these materials impacted the environment?”

On display in the lower section of the exhibotion are dresses from the 18th and 19th centuries to demonstrate how fashion changed what was possible to make yourself and what you’d have to commission from a haute couture house.

“In the 18th century dresses are designed to be unpicked very easily and be altered but by the time you get into the 19th century it’s different. Dresses are full of layers, metal hoops, elastic tape…” explains Ehrman.

In the 20th century, a similar trend occurred, moving from post-war trends of using reused materials (parachute blouse anyone?) to manmade materials such as viscose, which Fashioned From Nature highlights as being particularly toxic to the environment.

"They were very fashionable but have created more problems, so although they seemed like a wonderful solution to produce more clothes more cheaply, they had a huge impact," says Ehrman.

Ethical fashion has evolved

While the V&A has the most amazing collection of clothes, a lot of it’s ‘ethical’ stuff is everything we want to move away from - hempy, brown, shapeless clothes that are earnest and not elegant.

The top section of the exhibition shows how ethical fashion has seeped into the mainstream, even if some companies only make collections of sustainable fashion - such as Nike, H&M and J Crew.

"I hope an exhibition like this will encourage people to ask how their clothes are made," says Ehrman. "i've now become obsessed with looking at labels and they don't tell you very much. The real issue is what do we do about people on low incomes? I would like sustainability to become an everyday thing, not a luxury. It should be for everybody."

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“"We are a design museum so one of the questions we’re often asked is how can we design a better future?"”

It’s difficult to be 100% sustainable

The 30 odd exhibits from luxury and high street fashion over the last 20 years at Fashioned From Nature might rile some ethical fashion purists as they’re often from mass market brands who have helped fuel the fast fashion industry but it’s important that all aspects of this movement are represented.

“Nothing in this section is 100% sustainable but all of them are thinking about sustainability in one way or another,” explains Ehrman.

“I wanted to show these clothes have high fashion values and can be fun, appealing and colourful. It’s very difficult to be 100% sustainable.”

It also demonstrates that there are multiple ways of interpreting and creating sustainable fashion. Just as there’s no one answer to climate change, there’s no simple answer to how we remake a global fashion system that’s the second most polluting industry on the planet.

Fashion is helping to design the future

Fashioned From Nature isn’t all about looking backwards. The final part of the exhibition brings together designers, universities, researchers and pioneers in looking at how our fashion future will look.

“We want to engage with this current debate about sustainability and how we can achieve it. We are a design museum so one of the questions we’re often asked is how can we design a better future?” says Ehrman

“I want people to talk, debate, discuss. If people go away saying I was amazed by that or horrified by something else, that’s such a good thing. For me the best thing is when people who don’t know each other start talking.”

When I’ve been learning about the challenges we face and how they’ve come about what’s struck me is I want to give the consumer more agency, more power

There are clothes made from paper, oat roots and pineapples

Fashioned From Nature also takes in the pioneers and envelope pushers of tomorrow's fashion. Perhaps in 30 years time we'll be wearing clothes made from paper, grown from a lattice of oat roots or be rocking jeans dyed by bacteria. All of these are real exhibits from researchers, scientists and tech-disrupters all keen to bring down fashion's eco-impact while holding onto our creativity.

Even the curator had to rethink what she knew about fashion

Despite being a dress historian and curating several fashion-based exhibitions, Ehrman, admits she had to go back to the drawing board when it came to ethical fashion. 

Out of the V&A’s 100,000 strong collection, she wasn’t sure what could be repurposed.

“To begin with I thought we had very little when it got to the eco-friendly bit," she reveals. “When I’ve been learning about the challenges we face and how they’ve come about what’s struck me is I want to give the consumer more agency, more power."

“I found it difficult to reconcile my love of fashion with the damage it has caused during it’s creation,” she adds. 

“It really made me think, it didn’t diminish my love of fashion as I love going to the shops and reading fashion magazines but it made me want to make more careful choices.”

Fashioned From Nature is running at the V&A Museum from now until 27 January 2019. Buy your tickets here.

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