V&A’s Fashioned From Nature, Driving The Sustainability Dialogue

As the V&A's Fashioned From Nature exhibition nears the end of its run, we take a look at how the sustainability led presentation invited visitors to think about the materials of fashion and the sources of their clothes.

In 2018, the UK had a lot going for itself in the realm of sustainable fashion. This included the Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum’s first ever exhibition about sustainability. Titled, ‘Fashioned From Nature’ the museum of art and design addressed the subject of sustainability, a conversation that has been seeping into the conventional.

Image Credit: V&A

Open since April 2018, the Fashioned from Nature exhibition explores the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day. It chronicles the paradox that exists; the clothing industry set out to destroy its source of inspiration; the natural environment.

The exhibits include beautiful nature-enthused creations, all the way from the 18th century monkey-patterned waistcoat to Alessandro Michele’s Gucci Garden motifs. Sharing the space are fast fashion artefacts and commentary that highlight fashion’s harmful effects on the environment. As one is told the story of how clothing production changed over time, the exhibition poses two questions: How can we design a more sustainable fashion industry? What can we learn from the past?

“The exhibition isn’t about converting the converted. We wanted to make the topic interesting and accessible to a mainstream audience”

That being the context, delivered through the V&A curatorial experience, having received over 162,000 visitors, to date, I think that it is worth exploring how the visitors received the message. A sort of consumer behaviour analysis, in the precincts of a high-traffic museum.

On the drive behind the exhibition, Edwina Ehrman, the curator, shared: “The exhibition isn’t about converting the converted. We wanted to make the topic interesting and accessible to a mainstream audience to widen the conversation around sustainability.” At the same time, the converted were not to be alienated. Ditto for the museum’s core audience: tourists, women aged 25 years and above and students. The curation might have made for a tough balancing act, but Edwina is delighted with the response.

Unsettled, Especially With Fashion’s Ancient Past

V&A exhibitions are renowned for their high-impact drama. Clothing industry, with its horrific accounts of environmental and social impacts, offered scope to go down that road. The Fashioned From Nature exhibition opted for a subtle yet hard-hitting narrative, aided by videos and soundscapes from nature and industry. 

Vivienne Westwood dress, London, 2012 with ‘Ecotricity crown’, 2017 and ‘Uninhabitable land’ placard, 2016. Bridget Harvey, MEND MORE jumper, London, 2015

Encouraging a variety of opinions from visitors like “too political’”, “an information overload”, “leaves much to think about” and “deeply unsettling”. Edwina responds, “Unsettling is good. It lasts in the brain, Shock and awe are in the moment, and people can easily put it behind them.” She adds that catchy titles at the exhibition like ‘appealing, polluted silk’ and ‘murderous millinery’ grabbed attention. The latter refers to a hat decorated with a stuffed bird. Never mind the fact that earrings made with honeycreeper bird’s head are also on display.

However, the showstopper ie. conversation-starter at the exhibition has been the 1868 cotton dress. Its gleaming green embellishments grab attention. But once the visitors discover those jewels to be beetle wings, disgust replaces approval. Social care worker, Monica Capewell remarks, “What a tragic dress! It made someone look beautiful, but killed 5000 beetles along the way.” 

 Dress, Britain 1868-9 with later alterations; cotton, embroidered with gilded metal thread and Indian jewel beetles (Sternocera aequisignata)

The reaction to the exhibition seemed to lean more towards horrified and intrigued by the ancient past of fashion than its recent history. That might be attributable to the novelty factor. The beetle dress is a revelation while the grim realities of the present like sweat-shops and chemicals in our clothes have been in the public domain for a while and didn’t hit people as much.

Audience From Unexpected Quarters

Fashion at the V&A goes back a long way. In the past, people have flocked to the exhibitions to be wowed by stunning creations from the likes of Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen. On the other hand, ‘Fashioned From Nature’ features a mix of garments including, say a shirt from Next that is not high on fantasy and could be straight out of one’s wardrobe. Does that change anything at the venue? Apparently, yes. Basing it on anecdotal evidence, Edwina declares that she has never seen a higher number of male visitors to a fashion exhibition at the V&A. She explains, “Spurred by curiosity, I spoke with a few of them. Most said they find fashion exhibitions boring but this one; they enjoyed as it focusses on process and practice than just aesthetics.”

Dress and shoes, Stella McCartney, Britain, 20-17. Organic cotton dyed by Colorifix (dress); viscose and silk (shoes)

So while the exhibition is still about the garments, the curated pieces have been viewed through the lens of raw-materials, covering a broad spectrum ranging from mass production of cotton to experiments with grape leather. Reads one visitor comment, ‘wonderful to see so many incredibly beautiful objects but in such a different and quite challenging context.’

Edwina is hoping for the revival of the culture of appreciation and care for the fabrics in a garment. It is definitely a message being imparted to students who are attending the exhibition in significant numbers, over 300 and counting, courtesy a V&A collaboration with schools in London and South East. It is also fascinating to watch kids accompanied by their parents. Elaborate narrations about garments and the industry followed by pointed questions by 10-year-olds made for delightful eavesdropping.

Meanwhile, the MPs also came visiting. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee(EAC) held their evidence inquiry on sustainability in the fashion industry at the V&A. They were joined by industry representatives, ethical writers and other enthusiasts, making it the one of the better-attended UK parliamentary committee meetings. 

Making Connections Between Past, Present & Future

Spread across two floors, the ground is dedicated to the past. The first floor lays out the not-so-positive developments, 20th century onwards and offers fashion scenarios for 2030. At the same time, works of early sustainability in fashion advocates like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney have also been showcased. A visiting academic said, “The view here is holistic. It highlights that fashion’s problems were a long time in the making and there were always environmentally-minded people trying to push back.” She points to the display of a toxic felt hat (now in a sealed bag), that references cases of mercury poisoning among hatters from 1700s. Just goes to show that the makers in the fashion industry have been doomed across centuries. The exhibition also timelines fashion activism movements from the Bird Protection Society in the late 1800s, to the current Fashion Revolution.

Jean Paul Gaultier, evening gown, Russia collection, Paris, 1997. Taffeta with beads simulating leopard fur and rhinestone claws

The timing of the Fashioned From Nature exhibition is spot-on, especially when everyone is engaged with issues like plastics, use of fur and the vegan movement. Edwina said: “Conversations about plastics & the value of recycling are critical, but there are many other aspects of fashion that we need to think about. Hopefully understanding more about the past and present will help us plan for the future.”

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The exhibition offers hope by spotlighting sustainable innovations across material, design and production practices like Colorfix, Umade and Veja. A student contributor to the Centre For Sustainable Fashion(CSF) display at the exhibit, Sarojini Nallathamby says, “Its one thing to read but yet another to see sustainable innovations like the paper dress and garment dyed with micro-organisms, all in one place. This is the face of the alternative fashion movement and I’m excited to be a part of it. We have to leave behind a legacy better than what you see at this exhibition.”

Fashioned From Nature has won the Creative Green award for creative programming and the Walpole Group’s Sustainability with a Heart award. It closes on January 27, 2019.

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Molshree is a fashion consultant and researcher based in London. With a background in fashion retail, she is currently focussing on projects that propel the sustainability agenda into the mainstream.