When the fashion-industry is the second highest contributor to pollution, the V&A’s Fashioned from Nature exhibition comes at an incredibly important time.
The ground floor showcases a plethora of beautiful garments with seemingly questionable ethics at the heart of their production. Discussed are the overexploitation of natural resources used since the 1600s, from mass produced silk and wool to the skinning of beavers for fur and whale hunting for bones. There are informative audio visuals next to a number of the display cases and maps that highlight place of manufacture and trade routes of goods. These interpretative techniques add another layer of narrative, emphasisingthat this exhibition is not just about fashion; it is about the economic and cultural context in which these objects come from and the effects these fashion systems have on the natural world. Although touching on the incredibly poignant subject of animal trade, the V&A’s curator Edwina Ehrman has brought to light the horrors in the most sympathetic way. In a low light case to prevent deterioration, several feathered head ornaments from the 19th century lie next to a white dress embellished with iridescent beetle wings. We see how closely beauty and vulgarity are intertwined.
Cases are also dedicated to a variety of fine 17th century needlework with artistically embroidered insects, birdsand floral arrangements, 18th century fans printed with botanical studies and late 19thcentury artificial flowers on headbands. Attention to detail was given to the mounts on which these headbands sit, with cleverly produced shadows representative of a head. Exciting touches like this make the exhibition a real success.
Similar to the last V&A fashion blockbuster ‘Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’, the first floor instantly transports the viewer back to the 20th – 21st century. It is brighter and the fashions more familiar. The upstairs is dedicated to a sustainable future, with poignant visual reminders of the effects the ever-growing fashion industry has on the planet. Three large projections of the ice caps melting sit just to the side of what appears to be a protest ring, where wooden stands hold slogan t-shirts that are anti-animal testing and pro-sustainability. This section has been thoughtfully curated and as such, easily conveys this important message.
Other show stoppers include a Jean Paul Gaultier faux leopard print dress made of thousands of intricately laced beads from 1954. We learn that 2017 was a big year for innovative and sustainable materials from the likes of Diana Schurer and Stella McCartney. Included is a tunic made of Microsilks, a genetically modified yeast/sugar spun to mimic the silks of spiders, Mycelium trousers, which are made of the underground root structure of mushrooms, and a dress made of grass roots.
The first floor encourages us to consider where we buy our clothes from and how we can make more ethical decisions on purchasing habits. Although historically environmental concerns have not always been at the heart of fashion manufacturing, the visitors are reminded that new technologies for a more sustainable future are already in production. This exhibition conveys sensitive subject matters in an insightful way, projecting a sense of determination for change onto its viewers.