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Fashioned from Nature…

A thought provoking exhibition at the V&A: Fashioned from Nature (FFN). I felt it important to take the time to visit. It truly opened my eyes to the close relationship we have with fashion and Nature: good and not so good.

My partner was unable to attend the show so I had a spare ticket. I found it impossible to give the ticket away to people within my social circle, which kind of viscerally emphasised a disconnect with the subject…(even if that was not the truth of the matter!). The show was eerily quiet when I visited, but it gave me the space and time to connect with the material. I’d like to think that over the duration of the exhibition there will be an acceleration of people coming to view it. It’s a new exhibition and it’s wonderful!

The show covers the global journey of British fashion from around 1600 to the present day. The lower floor is mainly covering 1600-1900’s whilst the upper floor continued into the present times. It appears that ‘everything we wear, from clothes and accessories to jewellery, is ‘fashioned’ from matter found in the world around us. Nature inspires us for fashion ideas, provision of the raw materials and also in the energy used to produce and transport them (FFN)’. If you cannot get to the London exhibition, then I highly recommend the accompanying book ‘Fashioned from Nature’ (FFN). It is extremely informative and beautifully represents the exhibition. It is full of useful facts from the widely known to the more obscure.

I was particularly shocked to read how our human relationships have developed with Nature. One example is the effect of cultures where Christianity was the dominant religion. ‘It was justified by biblical teaching, particularly Genesis I, verse 26, where God granted man dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth (FFN)This God-given mastery over the earth fits well with our economical approach to the environment. When I read this, I caught myself thinking… ‘and over WOMEN too!’. I can see why religion has never sat comfortably with me; maybe that is one of the reasons I am so fond of the tarot. Nature is seen more as a commodity or playground for man to use for economic gain. Another example is our historical fascination with adornment where we wear animal fur or, say, iridescent jewel beetle wings (I kid you not!) stitched into textiles. Where starling-trimmed hats are contorted, dyed and painted from our desire to improve on Nature. We have historically had an instinct to ‘impose a human aesthetic of beauty on Nature through artifice (FFN)’.

An issue for us in the twenty-first century is fashion’s global demands on Nature which directly threaten the flora, fauna and human environment. ‘By 1800 the processes that supported the fashion industry and its rising demands for raw materials were beginning to have an impact on the environment and some animal populations. Although there were concerns about the spread of industrialisation, particularly in areas of natural beauty, but for most people these were outweighed by its economic benefits: turning a blind eye (FFN)’. It’s a similar story today! I cannot quite believe how long we have been abusing that which sustains us. This includes the hunting of animals to the point of extinction, the pollution of air and rivers, cutting down ancient rainforests and, of course, slavery.

In recent times, there has been a more environmentally driven clean-up of the fashion industry. But, this is counterbalanced by a more pernicious force which is our hunger for consumption of commodities and having fast fashion at low-cost to the consumer and high-cost to the Nature around us: turning a blind eye again. On top of that is our rapidly expanding population and demands for finite resources.

There seems to be disconnect that is hard to reconcile: Nature comes first argument verses the pursuit of globalised economy at any cost. The economic argument appears weak when we no longer have a sustainable planet to live on. How can we shift our focus from short-term gains to a more long-term solution?  At the moment, particularly in recent world-wide political times, it feels impossible! Progression feels more like regression….

sustainable dress - Emma Watson
V&A exhibition
Ferns V&A

It’s not about returning to the old ways, as they too were harmful to Nature. Plus, our population was a lot smaller back then. But, it’s about finding a symbiotic relationship between smart modern technological solutions whilst living within the finite boundaries of our planet.

An example would be reducing the amount of water used in fashion. Resources are stressed to the extent that ‘if we continue on our current path, demand for water by 2030 will outweigh supply (FFN)’. If solutions can be found where water is either not needed or can be recycled then there is more water for human consumption. Or, another example is, tracking data as to find the supplier details and journey of fashion items. In May 2017, a London-based designer Martine Jarlgaard and technology company Provenance launched a pilot collection to provide completely traceable products vis a ‘smart label’. There are so many more forward-thinking examples to read about within the exhibition or the book.

Plato's Atlantic
Stella McCartney
Honest By

Centre of Sustainable Fashion.

We are at the edges of many planetary boundaries and some have been breached already. ‘Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the earth experienced around 12,000 years of stable climate during which human civilisation developed (FFN)’. Since human industrialisation, there has been a hastening of effects on carbon dioxide emissions, rising sea levels, global extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation : the age of Anthropocene. The Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Australian National University have identified nature’s limits in quantifiable terms. In naming the earth’s nine planetary boundaries, we have already crossed four (climate change, species extinction, waste pollution, land use and biochemical usage). Fashion is a significant contributor to many of these boundary breaches.

This exhibition has impacted me and left me deeply reflective in my decision making around fashion. Historically, I have not really invested much in fashion (let alone thoughts around it), choosing instead to direct my finances and time elsewhere. My ethical choices have been a bit hit and miss depending on the urgency of my wants and needs. But, I am at a pivot point where I now need and want to invest in my wardrobe. I am taking things slow and choosing second-hand or a ‘less is more’ approach often at more financial cost: e.g. looking at sustainable fashion brands that have more ethical credentials.  For example, I am hoping to be married in the near future and have recently invested in a simple 1970’s vintage wedding gown. Simplicity of style and what suits my body shape whilst deliberately not buying into the seasonal trends: avoiding the ‘cathedrals of consumption’ department and online stores where possible! It will take time, but informed awareness is hard to ignore in the face of our global problems. 

Finally, clothes express who we are as individuals but are also ‘lived as a process (Kate Fletcher)’…so I am excited to start reading ‘The Craft of use- Post-Growth Fashion‘ by Kate Fletcher. It looks at the fostering of sustainability in the fashion sector. I am am confident it will be interesting so I will keep you posted.

Onwards and upwards!


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