From Christian Dior's floral dresses to Gucci's botanical prints, fashion has long looked to the natural world for inspiration. Yet in recent decades the relationship between the two has become an uneasy one, as a move towards disposable trends and man-made fibres continues to threaten the environment. A report last year by sustainability charity Wrap warns that the UK clothing industry is still the fourth largest pressure on natural resources in the after housing, transport and food. On top of this, the UK's clothing use generated greenhouse gases equivalent to 26.2 million tonnes of CO2 in 2016 globally.
A comprehensive new exhibition at London's V&A seeks to unpack the industry's centuries-old obsession with nature and highlight those leading the way in sustainable fashion today. Bringing together pieces dating back to 1600, Fashioned from Nature highlights historical garments that challenge the way we perceive clothing in the modern day, in an era where big names including Versace, Michael Kors, Armani and Tom Ford have declared their intentions to go fur free, and many brands are moving towards the use of cruelty-free materials. Among the pieces on display will be a pair of earrings from 1875 made from honeycreeper birds, a commonplace item of the time, and a 1860s muslin dress decorated with the green wing cases of hundreds of jewel beetles. It also takes in those designers who have incorporated nature's motifs in surprising and playful ways. These range from a men's waistcoat dating back to the 1780s adorned with embroidered macaque monkeys, to a recent Gucci bag decorated with stag beetle motifs.
A large proportion of the show is dedicated to examining the evolution of the raw materials used in the production of clothing, with a timeline tracing the use of fibres such as silk, flax, wool and cotton in the 17th and 18th centuries to the introduction of man-made materials and mass market fashion. Against a backdrop of the increasing threat of climate change, a particular focus will be on those contemporary designers placing sustainability at the heart of their business, including those synonymous with an ethical approach such as Stella McCartney and Christopher Raeburn. Alongside famous looks from luxury brands – such as a Calvin Klein dress made from recycled plastic bottles worn by Emma Watson at the 2016 Met Gala – are examples from the high street including a dress from H&M's Conscious line constructed from plastic shoreline waste.
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A collection of posters, slogan clothes and artworks will demonstrate how figures such as Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood propelled the issue of fashion's impact on the environment into the public eye, while the exhibition also presents innovative solutions to the problem. These include a bioluminescent genetically-engineered dress created by British-Japanese artist Sputniko! with the MIT Lab and the National Institute of Agricultural Science in South Korea. Also on display is a dress by artist Diana Scherer grown from plant roots. Meanwhile two interactive installations by the Centre of Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, titled "Fashion Now" and "Fashion Future" will dissect the construction of clothing today, and give a glimpse into how the industry can adapt to survive going forwards.
Fashioned from Nature is at the V&A from 21 April 2018 to 27 January 2019; vam.ac.uk
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