Fabrics have come under the media spotlight of late as environmental concerns have grown around the use of plastics in the industry.
As much as two thirds of UK clothing is created from synthetic fibres such as polyester, acrylic or polyamide, which generates around 4,000 tonnes of plastic microfibre pollution in UK every year.
So what are the alternatives? Well, new, sustainable materials are explored at the current V&A exhibition ‘Fashioned From Nature’ as well as the history of fabric; from the cultivation and use of natural fibres such as cotton, flax and wool, to the exploitation of animals for their feathers, skin and fur.
While it appears that many of our fabrics work against the environment, including water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals, increasing levels of textile waste; textile-dyeing and a copious amount of air miles! Nature it seems, has long been prevalent as a source of creative inspiration, season after season flowers, animal prints and many other natural sources feature in collections from high end to high street. It’s this complex relationship and some of the ideas to move the industry forward in a proactive and positive way that the V&A is daring to explore.
The exhibition starts with a look at the past 400 years of fashion with objects dating from the early 1600s. Items include an 1875 pair of earrings formed from the heads of two real Honeycreeper birds (a hugely popular item sold in enormous volume at the time) and a 1860s muslin dress decorated with the iridescent green wing cases of hundreds of jewel beetles. They are shown alongside natural history specimens to indicate the ways fashion has used animal materials in its designs and production.
Leading the way the exhibition continues upstairs to showcase contemporary designers of creative and sustainable popular fashion, such as Stella McCartney, Bruno Pieters for Honest and Christopher Raeburn as well as mainstream brands that incorporate sustainable practices such as G-Star RAW and H&M.
The exhibition also reveals how protest movements have helped draw attention to the harmful side of fashion with figures like Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett putting their political message out there – loud and proud. Their sloganed garments are shown alongside posters from Fashion Revolution, a collective aiming to change the way clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, and PETA, (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
Perhaps the most inspirational part of the exhibition is where it looks to the future and displays innovative fabrics and techniques coming through. Vegea, for instance, use grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather-substitute and their Grape gown is on show, as is a Ferragamo ensemble made from ‘Orange Fiber’ derived from waste from the Italian citrus industry and an H&M Conscious dress made from recycled shoreline plastic.
Meanwhile the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at London College of Fashion, UAL, present two interactive installations which explore ‘Fashion Now’ and ‘Fashion Future.’ ‘Fashion Now’ takes five iconic contemporary fashion pieces and using sensors, visitors are able to explore the unseen impact on nature of the construction, making, wearing and discarding of each item.
A visit to Fashioned From Nature should be made compulsory for all fashion students – it clearly and visually represents our fashion history and how the industry needs to implement change to tackle the many environmental issues head on.
Fashioned From Nature is on now until Sunday, 27 January 2019 at the V&A Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL, London.