Nadine Gan attended the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition, to explore the connection between fashion and the natural world.


The V&A’s latest exhibition, Fashioned from Nature, showcases the relationship between fashion and our planet Earth. Dating back to the 1800s, the exhibition is divided into two floors and brings us through a timeline of the evolution in fashion manufacturing and production that correlates closely to nature. Supported by European Confederation of Linen and Hemp, the exhibition raises two questions; 1. How can we design a more sustainable fashion industry? and 2. What can we learn from the past?

From the embroidered patterns of flowers and leaves on 19th-century dresses and vests for men, it can be seen that couturiers were making use of nature as a source of inspiration and even social classification in some cases. Alongside plant life, animals and insects also had a great influence in fashion. The features of birds such as the beak, feather and claws were mimicked and incorporated into fashion garments. One of the popular styles was capes or coats that gave a silhouette like bird wings.

However, the exhibition also brings to light the ugly truth of how fashion kills. Due to the fact that in the past it was harder to mimic animal features into a fashion garment, couturiers used real animals for their fur and feathers, and even beetles for their iridescent shells. The tails of stoats, a kind of weasel, were commonly sewn onto laces on dresses. One of the largest birds, albatrosses, were slaughtered for their breast feathers. They were used for luxurious fashion pieces including ladies’ muffs. Plants were also affected by the production of fashion since the 19th century. Over time, the industry changed its methods of producing the various kinds of textiles, from cutting down rubber trees for elastic garments to manufacturing glass fibre for yarn. The process of dyeing and bleaching also gave out harmful effects to the planet. In the past, dyeing had to be done with natural resources as they did not have the technology to use synthetic materials, which led to the cutting down of millions of redwood trees for their natural colouring. Then, as time changed, the industry figured out a different method and made use of man-made dye, however, the process caused pollution and left a huge carbon footprint. This is despite the fact that the awareness of fashion as a polluting industry was already raised back in the 1800s.

On the second floor, case studies on the unequal relationship between fashion and nature were on display. They explained the contemporary issues the industry faces which include climate change, waste, modern-day slavery, land use and biodiversity loss. The impact of these issues was also shown. One of them was the major size reduction in the South Aral Sea. Parts of the sea were diverted to irrigate cotton plantation in the area.

Alongside the harmful effects fashion has produced, today’s designers and brands showcased their innovative solutions to fashion sustainability, including Vivienne Westwood, Nike and G-Star. Independent and upcoming designers also displayed their eco-friendly recycled textiles alongside statements showing a step-by-step of their manufacturing process, explaining how they’ve produced a smaller carbon footprint compared to the current fashion production process.

Overall, Fashioned From Nature was an eye-opening exhibition. The truth behind the fashion industry has never been exposed in a more clear-cut, concise manner. Not only did it raise awareness of the importance and urgency of fashion sustainability but it also raised questions as to whether or not it is worth it to give into the consumerist culture after knowing all of the consequences it brings to our planet Earth.

Image via the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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