Fashioned from Nature at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Koen and I love visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. The permanent collection is free to explore and there are always very interesting exhibits throughout the year that you can pay to explore. To be honest, we originally went to the V&A to visit Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, but it was sold out for three straight weeks! Fashioned by from Nature seemed interesting to me because I studied textiles and work in fashion. Luckily Koen was interested as well, so we decided to buy tickets for this exhibit instead. l.ucky us! If you’re in London any time between now and January 27th, 2019, I recommend you check it out!
Fashioned from Nature
This exhibition explores the relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day. The exhibits show the inspiration fashion draws from nature, but also highlight the harmful effects on the natural environment of the increasing scale of the clothing industry.
It asks two questions:
How can we design a more sustainable fashion industry?
What can we learn from the past?
Fashioned from Nature examines how clothing production has changed over time and the challenges faced by all of us today – to create and buy clothes that are beautiful and responsible, and to value our clothes more.
The highest quality European flax came from Holland, Flanders (Belgium) and France. Although flax was grown in England, Scotland and Ireland for weaving linen and making lace, Britain relied heavily on imported linen and lace. Lace was made with a needle and thread or by plaiting threads wound on bobbins. The finest linen thread for lacemaking was created by wetting the flax fibres with saliva or water during spinning.
Fans, used to cool the air and whisk away flies, also served as fashion accessories to convey the user’s wealth and taste. Skillfully manipulated, they could serve as a form of non-verbal communication. Fans were made of materials from geographically remote areas. The most costly fans were embellished with carving, gilding, paint, metal foil and jewels. China exported complete fans to Europe, as well as the sticks and guards to make them.
Baleen and Toothed Whales: Whales fall into two groups: baleen whales are filter feeders, living on small plankton and krill, while toothed whales eat a variety of fish and marine animals. The light weight and strength of baleen (taken from the whales’ upper jaws) made it appropriate for the stretchers that join an umbrella’s canopy to its handle. Its flexibility also led to its use for the shafts of riding crops. Sailors sometimes crafted the teeth and jawbones of toothed whales into walking sticks which they sold when they returned to port. The demand for whale products led to overhunting and dramatically reduced whale populations in the seas nearest to northern Europe. whales were also subjected to a crual and protracted death.
The bright fixed colors and unfamiliar patterns of painted Indian cottons brought to Britain generated huge excitement. The designs were soon modified to suit British taste and increase their appeal. This new design vocabulary merged Indian, Chinese and British motifs. In this dress, the overall pattern was identifiably Indian, but its white ground and delicate undulating floral sprays were adaptations for the British market.
Cotton neckerchiefs and handkerchiefs were manufactured in large quantities in London, northwest England and Scotland. They were woven and printed in a great variety of designs and colours. The examples here were probably worn by working- and middle-class men and women. Large-scale cotton manufacturing created polution. At the St Rollox works near Glasgow, the production of powder for bleaching cotton released hydrogen chloride. Rising up, the pungent fumes combined with moisture to create acid rain.
Around the world, albatrosses were slaughtered in their millions. Their breast feathers were particularly prized. As the 19th-century display case indicates, this albatross was ‘dressed and prepared for making ladies’ muffs, etc’.
The international trade in exotic materials such as fur and feathers increased dramatically during the 19th century. London was an important hub for the sale of both, with many consignments purchased for onward sale in other countries. The fur sales took place twice a year. Feather sales were held more frequently. Both included species sourced from across the globe. Concerns about the brutality of the trades and over-hunting prompted opposition. Local campaigns were established, and groups such as the newly formed Society for the Protection of Birds and the Hmanitarian League took action. Limited laws to protect native birds were first introduced in 1869. The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention – signed by Japan, Russia, USA and UK in 1911 – was the first legislation to protect fur-bearing animals.
The V&A collection includes many felt hats containing traces of mercuric nitrate. The chemical was used in the felting process from the early 1700s. The hats are kept in sealed bags to contain the remaining toxic contaminants. Mercury poisoning, which causes trembling and anxiety, was a common occupational hazard for hatters. The symptons led to the expression ‘as mad as a hatter’.
Drawn from Nature
The Botanick Fan: This fan was inspired by The Botanic Garden (1789-91), a didactic poem written by the natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin. His lines describing the arrival of spring are printed on the reverse. Darwin wanted to encourage interest in botany and introduce his readers to the work of Carl Linnaeus. Drawings of the sexual anatomy of plants arranged according to Linnaeus’s botanical classification (1735) decorate the front of the fan.
Macaque Monkeys Waistcoat
Nature’s Box of Colors
Among the many birds imported to ornament dress, those with iridescent feathers were among the most desirable. Peacocks, honeycreepers and hummingbirds from South America were prized for their feathers’ vibrant, glittering colours. Possibly the most artful use of hummingbirds was their incorporation in fans. Manipulated with a deft hand, the stuffed bird might almost seem to hover again in flight. Like honeycreepers, they were also incorporated in earrings and other jewellery.
Earrings: Brazil, about 1875, Male red-legged honeycreeper
Green and Gleaming: Over 5000 beetle wings and parts of wings were used to decorate this dress. Europeans first encountered the use of jewel beetles to embellish clothing in Asia and South America. By the late 1820s European fashions were decorated with the shiny metallic wing cases. India exported beetle wing cases, as well as stoles, dress panels and flounces embroidered with beetle wings. In 1867, a consignment of 25,000 wings was sold in London.
The quality of mother-of-pearl, or nacre, depends on its lustre, cololur and texture. In the 19th century Britain imported mother-of-pearl shells from Egypt, India, China, the Philippines, Australia and South America.
This evening dress (left) is embroidered with trailing flowers and tree ferns, which swirl around it as if battered by a high wind. Their similarity to plants from the Atlantic island of St Helena may reflect the recent gift of a St Helenian tree fern to Kew Gardens in 1822, which was donated by the Lieutenant Governor of the island.
Wax Flowers: John Haynes Mintorn probably created this bouquet of wax flowers to demonstrate his superb skills. The very realistic blooms include roses, a passion flower, lilies of the valley and forget-me-nots. Arrangements like this were purchased to decorate the home. Natural history museums also employed wax artists to make accurate botanical models of plants for study and display.
Made from Pineapple Leaves: This very unusual fabric has been identified as a weave of pineapple fibre and silk. Pineapple leaves – whose coarse fibres are made into rope – also contain fine white fibres which can be woven into cloth. The dress was worn by Isabella Davison for her wedding in Northumberland in 1828. The tiny voids in the pattern have had the silk warp and weft threads removed from behind, leaving just a translucent veil of vegetable fibres. Pineapple cloth is known ias pina in the Philippines and batiste d’ananas in France. It was admired for its transparency and smooth, shiny surface.
Fashion Futures 2030
With around 300,000 tonnes of clothing discarded to landfill in the UK each year, the need to repair and recycle our clothes is critical. Designer Rosie Martin promotes homemade clothes as an alternative to ‘fast fashion’. Her books enable even those with no sewing experience to create custom garments that will be valued longer. Wool and the Gang produce knitting kits from a range of traceable, ethically sourced yarns. This Tencel yearn is manufactured in a closed-loop system so that the water and solvents are collected and re-used.
Kibiso silk is made from the protective outer surface of silk cocoons. These fibres – coarse and difficult to use in modern machinery – are usually discarded as waste. Japanese textile design house NUNO has developed a way to process the stron fibres and use them in commercial designs such as this dress and coat. (Dress and coat by Reiko Sudo for NUNO, Japan 2017)
The ‘leopard skin’ draped over the front of this evening gown is crafted entirely from beads. Their placement and colours are expertly designed to simulate the animal’s distinctive rosette-patterned fur. The gown took over 1000 hours to create. The position of the skin and leopard’s head emphasises the female form, clinging to it in an ambiguous embrace. (‘Russia Collection’ evening gown by Jean Paul Gaultier, Paris 1997)
Mycelium is the underground root structure of a mushroom. This leather, developed by Bolt Threads, is made by combining mycelium cells with a substrate of corn stalks and nutrients. Over 10 days the cells grow into the substrate, creating an interconnected mass that can be made into almost any size. The quality of the resulting leather depends on factors such as environment, nutrients and how it is tanned. This prototype handbag, made in Stella McCartney’s signature Falabella style, is the first object made of this material. Its development reflects the designer’s commitment to material innovation. (Mylo Falabella Prototype 1 by Stella McCartney and Blot Threads, London 2018).
The Gucci Garden
Alexander McQueen’s last fully realised collection, ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, imagined a world of climate chane – melting ice caps, submerged land and humans evolving to live underwater. The models wore complex digital prints of amphibious skins. McQueen’s collections frequently expressed his ecological awareness. (Dress, Plato’s Atlantis collection by Alexander McQueen, London 2010)
After the exhibit we relaxed at the cafe and took a photo with the Frida sculpture and flower arrangement!