Fashioned From Nature, The V&A, Review

The Victoria and Albert Museum is currently presenting the first exhibition in the UK exploring the complex Fashioned From Nature focuses on two questions: how can we design a more sustainable fashion industry, and what can we learn from the past?

The ground floor explores the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day, and looks closely at nature as a tool of trade. The British Empire obtained vast reservoirs of natural resources to convert into manufactured goods and profit. The exhibition showcases the principle raw materials used by the clothes production process such as flax, fur, cotton, silk and wool. Rubber, for instance, was utilised in fashion for its waterproofing qualities. Yet it was derived from latex found in plants, meaning that numerous trees in the Amazon were destroyed to obtain it, causing great harm to the ecosystem.

Cape of curled cockerel feathers, Auguste Champot, France, ca. 1895 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cape of curled cockerel feathers, Auguste Champot, France, ca. 1895 | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition then fast forwards to the nineteenth century to observe how the Industrial Revolution accelerated production and developed the use of machinery and steam power in the textile industry. Gradually, one sees the growing environmental impact and pollution caused by the fashion industry responding to the public’s increasing demand for clothes to be made readily available in bulk.

The V&A nevertheless also examines how fashion can be more sustainable. Sarah Ratty’s eco-positive ‘slider’ dress, with its ‘tree-bark’ trousers and fleece hoodie, is a simple yet stylish outfit that perfectly embodies the notion of fashion making a statement, while also being kind to nature. Ratty’s original designs were among the first to be stocked in department stores like Harrods. Overall, the exhibition’s sustainable designs hide all evidence of the recyclable materials they are made from, instead looking effortlessly chic and fashionable. Without reading the descriptions, you would not be able to guess that they are all formed from recyclable fibres, which testifies to the perfection of the designs.

Greenpeace printed cotton t-shirt, Britain, 1990s | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Greenpeace printed cotton t-shirt, Britain, 1990s | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition also seeks to offer a range of alternative solutions to reducing fashion’s impact on the environment . One of its most thought-provoking videos explores the notion of ‘growing leather shoes’ by examining whether leather could be a by-product created from waste. This would result in more oxygen being released into the atmosphere, unlike the present manufacturing process that destroys rainforests for the rearing of cows for leather. Such ideas are strikingly progressive and leave exhibition viewers with hope that not all will be lost if we develop these potential alternatives.

‘Grape’ dress made with Vegea, a leather alternative made from grape waste | © Vegea
‘Grape’ dress made with Vegea, a leather alternative made from grape waste | © Vegea

Numerous sustainability campaign posters are also on display, including the work of fashion activist, Katherine Hamnett who uses fashion to broadcast her political views. Her Clean Up or Die collection drew attention to the cotton industry’s impact in developing countries. Assuming a central spot in the exhibition, it draws viewers in with its flamboyant posters, visual designs and innovative clothing, forcing them to take in her message of the reality of global environmental damage.

The fashion industry is one of the top five polluters in the world. Yet the V&A’s exhibition is not all doom and gloom: the originality of its sustainable designs shows that it is possible to be both creative and promote fashion with nature in mind.

‘Fashioned from Nature’ is at the V&A until 27 January 2019