What on earth would a Calvin Klein frock made from recycled plastic bottles look like? Why would anyone use the head of a bird to make an earring? Can you really make clothes from the roots of plants? You’ll find all of these extraordinary questions are answered at the V&A's major exhibition, "Fashioned from Nature" (to 27 Jan 2019).
Striking at the heart of fashion, the V&A’s new exhibition exposes wasteful tendencies while highlighting brave and brilliant solutions.
Covering four centuries of fashion, this ambitious show demonstrates how clothes have charted the development of human civilisation. During the 19th century, for example, it became popular to craft jewellery from honeycreepers. Native to Hawaii, these particularly pretty songbirds were hunted and processed for their heads, each one removed to become the main element of an earring. Clearly more acceptable in the past, the destruction of nature in the name of fashion is increasingly protested against.
Protest and rage made Dame Vivienne Westwood’s name in fashion, so it’s not surprising that the British designer’s work is on display. Westwood has been challenging the establishment for decades, whether as a punk figurehead or by joining fracking protests, so the museum’s decision to display one of her protest outfits underscores the political side of the exhibition.
Every problem needs a solution, and "Fashioned by Nature" has plenty of those on display. Designer Katharine Hamnett probably gave the clearest answer in 1989: her autumn/winter collection that year was called Clean Up or Die, from which the museum is displaying items. Previously known for working with fur and pioneering the environmentally destructive stonewash process, Hamnett created the collection to signal her new, greener path. It used organic cotton and sustainable fabrics and shares the same ethos as the likes of Stella McCartney, whose designs are also on display here.
Emma Watson, on the red carpet for the 2016 Met Gala, famously wore a Calvin Klein gown with a difference: it was made from recycled plastic bottles, made to be re-worn in different ways. This is the epitome of glamour-meets-green—in fact it was part of a sustainability initiative, part of the ‘Green Carpet Challenge’ with Eco-Age.
The exhibition tells the story of just how far sustainable fabrics have come. Take the ‘grape gown’—the garment’s leather-like material is Vegea, a material made from the parts of grapes which are not used by the wine industry. The fashion world has always had a (very) happy relationship with wine, but not like this! Elsewhere, H&M shows a dress made from plastic rubbish found on beaches, and Diana Scherer displays a dress made of a fabric made from plant roots.
The V&A also highlights clothes inspired by the natural world’s elegance. You’ll discover a waistcoat from the 1780s adorned with cheeky macaques, while leopard print appears on garments by Jean Paul Gaultier.
Last year, Vivienne Westwood said: ‘Whoever goes to art galleries and reads is a freedom fighter for a better world.’ So take part in that fight at the V&A—after all, you can’t argue with a Dame.