Hearing about the exhibition, I assumed it was going to be a shrine to the beauty of nature shown in fashion – some beautiful historical and contemporary fashion pieces inspired by nature. But within a few seconds of being there, I discovered these items were created using very ethically questionable methods – wasting rare materials and exploiting wildlife. I suddenly understood the duality of the term ‘fashioned by nature’. One muslin dress made in the 17th century definitely felt like it was built out of nature, as it had been decorated with 5000 wings from live jewelled beetles.
Even more questionable looking pieces included in the exhibition – an overcoat crafted from sealskin, albatross stuffed purses and whalebone corsets – reminded me that fashion is really created at the expense of the environment and its creatures.
Important connections were also made to the impact the clothing manufacturing industry has on the environment – it contributes high levels of air, water and waste pollution. Using fibres like cotton, which seem natural, can also be toxic in the processes that are involved in making clothes. Conservationist Rachel Carson’s researched environmental book Silent Spring revealed in 1962 that the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides in the US for cotton growth was causing significant damage to the environment. Even more concerning, all the water, oil and chemicals used to create iconic fashion pieces that we remember from the 60s – the PVC skirt, leather boots and flower dresses – would be enough to destroy an entire rainforest!
A different more optimistic layer that I found in the exhibition was the displaying of pieces that are just inspired by the beauty of nature not created from it. These pieces reveal how nature became a compelling source of inspiration for fashion designers, particularly from the 20th century when a vast variety of exotic nature was discovered through technology (and David Attenborough).
The exhibition then became for me a fun guessing game – was this one inspired by nature or was it made by nature or both? I discovered that some of the pieces did not demonstrate beauty but more over-experimental ‘high fashion’; from Alexander McQueen’s amphibian print dresses to Masaya Kushino’s ‘bird-witched’ shoes fashioned from fake feathers and clawed heels (nobody could walk in those!) There was also an evening gown with what looked like a leopard’s skin hanging off it. But when you look closer you can see the leopard skin design had been created entirely from beads!
But what was high fashion and environmentally-friendly was Stella McCartney’s casual wear made from protein fibre and mushroom cells, and Michelle Lowe Holder’s statement jewellery from end of the line material. And topping it off was the Calvin Klein dress crafted from yarn out of recycled bottles, and worn by Emma Watson at the Met Gala 2016.
There are even more affordable options for high street shoppers ,including H&M’s Conscious Collection launched in 2011, with the particular-pieces made from plastic waste recovered from oceans and waterways. Apart from a questionable anorak made out of maps (although you would be wearing maps from the Second World War Royal Air Force), all these pieces are still incredibly wearable, fashionable and most importantly not made at the expense of our environment.
So the final question that I come to at the end of the exhibition is why don’t more people know about these eco-friendly fashion alternatives and, if they do, why aren’t they using them? Should there be clear labelling about the danger of clothes with a warning on our receipts or a vegan frenzy just for clothes? The V&A has delivered a powerful exhibition that inspires an important discussion about how we as consumers can help fashion celebrate and not harm nature. Then we won’t need any more bird shoes!