Fashioned from Nature, the Victoria & Albert Museum's next big fashion exhibition, opens this weekend, inviting audiences to "trace the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world" from 1600 to the present day. The split-level show explores how designers have been inspired by nature – from the feathers of birds to the fluidity of the sea – and how, at the same time, fashion has harmed our planet. Asking two questions – "How can we design a more sustainable fashion industry?" and "What can we learn from the past?" – the exhibition encourages us to analyse our relationship with the Earth and with clothes in 2018.
Ahead of the show's opening, we've rounded up the four big talking points from the exhibition, from our gruesome ancestors to futuristic fabrications.
Fashion Vs. Nature Isn't New
Though fashion's impact on the environment feels like an immediate and urgent issue, thanks to fast fashion and a global fashion industry speeding up environmental damage, air and water pollution is in fact nothing new. In the 17th and 18th centuries, clothing was handmade with natural materials like silk, wool and cotton. Come the dawn of international trade, though, materials were imported from across the globe, with Britain sourcing from Asia, Africa and America.
At the same time, the 1800s saw mega technological advancement, meaning that the textile industry could be powered by steam, rather than relying on animals and wind. Add this to growing wages and higher standards of living, and you have a much greater demand for clothes, met at a much faster pace. The original fast fashion.
Our Kids Will Think Our Fashion Was Brutal
While the exhibition features some beautiful dresses, the most fascinating are the morbid pieces. On display are a pair of earrings from 1875 made from the (whole) heads of honeycreeper birds – statement earrings indeed – and an 1860s muslin dress covered in the green wing cases of hundreds of jewel beetles.
The use of whalebone and turtle shell was pretty common back in the day too, which begs the question: If we see these practices as cruel, damaging and unnecessary, what will our grandchildren think of our use of leather and fur?
Eco Doesn't Mean Ugly
Alongside an exploration of past fashion customs and the way they impacted our planet, there are some pieces at the exhibition that prove sustainability needn't be labelled worthy or staid. (Just look at H&M's latest Conscious launch.)
On display are: Calvin Klein's monochrome Met Gala look for Emma Watson, made from recycled plastic bottles; the floral dress from Erdem's Eco-Age Green Carpet Capsule; an up-cycled dress by Christopher Raeburn; and of course, womenswear from Stella McCartney, including her George Stubbs "Horse Frightened By A Lion" print shirt and trousers. If there was ever any doubt that responsible fashion could be contemporary and cool, this collection refutes it.
The Future Looks Hopeful
While the earlier sections of the exhibition could get an eco warrior down, you'll leave the show feeling hopeful. Look to Vegae, an Italian brand that turns some of the seven million tonnes of waste grape seeds, skin and stalks from wine production into vegan leather. A dress made from the chemical-free leather alternative sits alongside other pieces made from orange peel and pineapple fibre, too.
Alongside Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood's tireless work in promoting sustainable clothing, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion is undertaking important research and encouraging young and emerging designers to think more widely about the way they make clothes. Fashion Revolution too, a collective looking into alternative sources for our fashion, has posters on display, as does London designer Katie Jones, who created a vintage customised piece for Susie Lau in 2015. While the past certainly looks bleak in the context of our planet's current fight against plastic, chemicals and water waste, there is reason to be optimistic about our future.
The V&A is known for its blockbuster fashion exhibitions – think Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion; Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear; and Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s – so there's no doubt this instalment will be just as successful as the last. The key difference with this show, though, is that Fashioned from Nature will be instrumental in convincing people to alter their consumerist habits for the greater good of our planet. In 2018, we're at a tipping point, and this might just be the action-inspiring show that turns the tide.
Fashioned from Nature will run from 21st April 2018 to 27th January 2019 at the Victoria & Albert Museum.