Sophie Campbell



Fashion fur pas at the V&A

April 21, 2018

W H Hudson, the Argentine naturalist who lived in Victorian West London for many years, loathed feathered hats so much that he couldn’t speak to the women who wore them.

There’s a hat like that in the V&A’s new show Fashioned from Nature: chic, dyed to match the russet walking costume of an unknown nineteenth-century Parisienne and finished with a ‘re-arranged’ starling. It looks, 150 years on, uncomfortably like a starling that has flown into a hat.

Curator Edwina Ehrman sets out to examine fashion’s complex relationship with nature, which it simultaneously adores and destroys. Take the mantua below, court dress of the 1760s, tapered bodice, three-quarter sleeves, skirt the width of a snow plough: yup, completely nuts, but the workmanship and the materials are extraordinary.

English mantua, 1760s

Hmmm: see label for instructions. Raw silk from Italy, Spain or the Middle East. Flax from the Low Countries (almost the only raw material not on the naughty step, luckily, as the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp is a main sponsor). Embroidery wire from Potosí, now Bolivia. Ermine from Russia or North America.

A staggering range of materials has been imported from across the globe from the earliest days of fashion. But as Europe and America grew and prospered, such trade began to have a deadly effect on resources and people.

For every lawn collar with stitches so tiny as to be beyond belief there was an exploited worker; for every ivory fan stick a dead elephant; for every gauntlet softened with lime and tanned with urine a poisoned river.

As you examine the cabinets, a soundtrack of birds and the natural world is gradually drowned out by the sounds of industry, discreetly ramming home the message.


Ostrich feather fan
Elizabethan gauntlet

It’s not a negative experience, though. Far from it. Up on the mezzanine floor, guilt gives way to hope as a new generation of designers, with an eye on the battered world and its resources, experiments with the recycled and recyclable, with paper, or root systems, or entirely new forms and fabrics – with some dazzling results.

Faux feather hats off to Stella McCartney, vegan designer since her degree show over 20 years ago, whose Mycelium Falabella mushroom leather prototype handbag (stay with me) sat beside some gorgeous yellow trousers. I think they were recyclable, but they may have been polyester, perhaps both. Contemporary curators hate labelling exhibits and just sometimes it’s a struggle matching an object with its wall-mounted label.

Paper fabrics
Stella McCartney prototype handbag
Stella McCartney trousers
Emma Watson's Calvin Klein dress

Emma Watson, too, is there – or her mannequin is, in the black and white Calvin Klein dress she wore to the 2016 Met Gala; the whole thing, yarn to hem to zip, made from recycled materials.

The hope is that from these lofty and expensive heights the drip-drip-drip will reach the rest of us. Even affordable brands are beginning to think about the real price of fashion.

I left inspired: more aware of my ignorance, more excited by the thought of change. There’s an urgent message in this exhibition, but it’s also a stunning spectacle.

Take your kids. And take yourself.

Fashioned from Nature is at the V&A April 21 to January 27 2019. Tickets £12.

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