Sustainable Fashion at the V&A: “Fashioned from Nature” presents some History and lots of Fashion

“Fashioned from Nature” purports to examines the relationship between fashion and the environment from the year 1600 to now, with some information on the impact that various design practices have had on the environment, and some information about the technology that has developed around the fashion and textile industry. To be clear: the exhibit is ambitious. To cover a period of four-hundred-plus years of fashion is a difficult task, to simultaneously cover the 400 year history of production of that fashion is pretty impossible. Though Sustainable Fashion is addressed as a concept, the unique challenges that Sustainable Fashion presents are lost in the breadth of the exhibit.

Sustainable Fashion

Evening coat, Alix (Madame Grès),1936, France. Museum no. T.234-1976. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibit struggles to find a consistent narrative: Some articles are included for their unusual use of nature motifs (Evening Coat, Madame Grès, 1936), while others seem to be included for their use of environmentally responsible materials rather than their design merritt (Calvin Klein Green Carpet Challenge Dress, 2016.) For this designer, the result fell flat. To produce a single garment responsibly without budgetary restrictions is not much of a challenge, and it is not Sustainable Fashion. The challenge lies entirely in the ability to produce an environmentally responsible design that is achievable in mass production, particularly at a price where consumers can still afford to choose the environmentally responsible design over cheaply produced high street fashion. It is only when these criteria are met can a garment be understood as Sustainable Fashion. 

Sustainable Fashion

Calvin Klein Green Carpet Challenge dress worn by Emma Watson to the MET Gala 2016. © Matt Baron/REX/ Shutterstock

The real environmental impact of fashion and design is due to methods of its production, specifically its production en-masse. The concept of mass production was introduced with Industrial Revolution (1760-1850) which redefined the production of textiles and ultimately all consumer goods with the introduction of the factory system. The practice of factory exploitation of workers, of pollution, of profit over humanity has then been exported all over the world. In fashion magazines and store windows we see the beauty that good design can produce, but we do not see the horrors of the exploitation and waste that are behind it. Similarly, “Fashioned from Nature” provides us with a sanitized view of the history of fashion, with a few token pieces of “responsible” design, shying away from the more difficult conversation regarding methods of mass production.

While I may not have been entirely impressed by the depth of the exhibit, I highly recommend going to view the truly incredible pieces on display (‘Rootbound # 2’ Dress, Diana Scherer, 2017). If you are feeling brave and if you are interested in understanding the pieces in a comprehensive socio-historical context I recommend doing a bit of *kinda dark* research about the major developments of the Industrial Revolution before you go. (Look out for the *kinda dark* blog post later this week.) If you think that sounds a bit too grim, still head over to V & A and bask in the beauty of nature which has been reflected into these incredible works of fashion!

Sustainable Fashion

‘Rootbound # 2’ Dress, Diana Scherer, 2017, Netherlands. © Diana Scherer