All three hundred of the objects on display at the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition are beguiling. Some are mesmerisingly beautiful, some induce horror or a sense of shame, but each of them stimulates a reaction. Together, they lay out the colossal inspiration which nature has provided to fashion over the past 400 years, in a narrative that spans cause, effect and solution.
Moving chronologically, the story begins with the silk embroidery of the early 1600s and sweeps one through to technological, planet-saving innovations of today. The first tier of the exhibition explores the design, materials, and consumer behaviour of the 17th and 18th centuries in a flourish of spectacular grandeur. Displaying the handmade attire of the elite – then a privileged and indulged few – eerie highlights include an 18th century court dress measuring 175cm in width and punctuated with ermine tails, a pair of earrings formed from the heads of two sad and sweet little Honeycreeper birds, and a dress covered entirely in sparkling, bejewelled beetle wings.
Earrings made from heads of Red Legged Honeycreeper birds, 1875. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Up the stairs – and past the cascading terrariums that surround Emma Watson's viral-making Met Gala dress (fashioned by Calvin Klein from recycled bottles) – one reaches the second, contemporary wave of the exhibition. This features the solutions the fashion industry has presented to reduce its carbon footprint, for example Vegea – the leather alternative made from grapes – and other prototypes currently making a stir. We are also privy to a number of effective protest campaigns that have triggered change and shaken up centuries old precepts.
In every direction, there is a masterful creation which proves that sustainable fashion is anything but dull: there is Jean Paul Gaultier’s shimmering ‘Cat Woman’ dress, crafted entirely from beads; There is a studded motorcycle jacket from Katharine Hamnett’s ‘Clean Up or Die’ collection, part of her ‘fashioning a better future’ project in the eighties. And all against the backdrop of commissioned videos, often heartbreaking, driving home the devastating effect that fast fashion is having on our planet.
Speckled Crimson Ruff by Michelle Lowe-Holder, 'Flock & Fold Collection AW11. Photography by Polly Penrose
The exhibition is not only timely in its opening by arriving just ahead of Fashion Revolution Week (23rd - 29th April), but also in a wider sense. Curator Edwina Ehrman told us, ‘I sense that we’re at a tipping point in public opinion on fashion, nature and sustainability, and I thought that the exhibition needed to reflect that’.
Yet, while our critical eye immediately condemns the historic outfits on display downstairs for the often brutal loss of animal life their fabric required, they are – arguably – time defying creations of beauty and intrigue, meticulously crafted, admired and passed down through generations. Fast fashion, the production of which increasingly enslaves our peoples and ravishes our planet, is too often here today, gone tomorrow and entirely worthless.
While the V&A’s latest offering may not boast the theatrics and obvious glamour as the likes of Savage Beauty and Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, the message it drives home is enough to sustain the V&A’s reputation for curating iconic and thought-provoking fashion exhibitions.
|What||Review: Fashioned From Nature|
|Where||V&A, South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL | MAP|
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
21 Apr 18 – 27 Jan 19, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Please click here for more information|