Fashioned from Nature at the V&A

A look inside the V&A’s latest exhibition exploring fashion’s complex relationship to nature from 1600 to the present day. 

The exhibition follows the diverse ways nature has been used as both a source inspiration and a resource to be exploited over the past four centuries.

The display takes the viewer chronologically through fashion history, from a muslim day dress embroidered with beetles wings from the 1860s to Emma Watson’s MET Gala 2016 Calvin Klein dress made from recycled plastic bottles. The exhibition reflects fashion’s evolving relationship to nature and documents the emergence of sustainable fashion in the mainstream.

According to the curator Edwina Ehrman, ‘We’re asking two questions: What can we learn from the past? And how can we design a more sustainable future?’

The first section dives into the V&A’s historic archive to showcase the evolving use of natural materials in clothing between 1600 and 1900. During this time, the expansion of global trade and more efficient manufacturing methods saw the introduction of exotic materials and an upscale in production.

It was shocking to see materials rarely used today such as exotic bird feathers, ivory, wale bone, seal fur and tortoise shell on mainly British-owned clothes and accessories. A map illustrating the trade routes between Britain and the locations of various precious materials such as North American furs, Peruvian precious metals and Middle Eastern silks revealed the extent of anthropocentric and imperialist thinking. While admiring a waist coat intricately embroidered with macaque monkeys it was hard not to be reminded of the price paid by nature for the human pursuit of beauty.

Plants, animals and people have long been viewed as resources to be used and exploited.

The birth of mass manufacture and the impact of increasingly intensive farming methods was documented. By displaying finished garments next to the raw materials they are made from, the exhibition emphasised the natural origins of many garments; a fact which can be so easily forgotten when production is geographically distant from the end consumer.

The final section showcased the various ways designers in the last few decades have addressed growing concerns over resource scarcity and unsustainable production practices.

Fashion activism in the form of a ‘Who Made My Clothes’ campaign placards and Vivienne Westwood slogan dresses revealed the need for designers to take responsibility for their supply chains as well as the importance of consumer led action.

Innovative material use from Stella McCartney and novel production methods in garments such as GStar RAW’s first cradle to cradle certified pair of jeans looked to the future and the role of science and technology in finding sustainable alternatives to current practices. In contrast, upcycled garments by Katie Jones looked to what already exists and the potential of make do and mend.

The importance of transparency and traceability could also be seen in a Bruno Pieters suit from his Honest By label, which incorporates information about the fabric and origin into its design. Even fast fashion was represented in the form of an H&M conscious collection dress made from ocean plastic.

While not all garments were convincingly sustainable, the overall message was overwhelmingly positive. It seems hopeful that in the future fashion will have a more respectful relationship with nature. As one of the top five most polluting industries in the world this is essential.

Every Object is Political

The story of a pair of Primark cargo trousers, made in Bangladesh 2013.

At first it might seem that there is nothing significant about this pair of trousers. They are mass-manufactured, cheap and common place. They are made of machine stitched cotton twill with plastic buttons and steel zip. They were manufactured by New Wave Bottoms in Dhaka, Bangladesh and were sold in Primark stores across the UK in 2013/14. 

They are part of ‘fast fashion’, a system developed by large retailers and supermarkets for rapidly producing low-priced, trend-based clothing. 

If you were around in 2013 you might have even bought a pair but by now they are likely to have ended up in the bin or in a charity shop having worn out or become unfashionable.

You might wonder why such a pair of seemingly insignificant trousers is currently on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum of decorative art and design in London. The reason lies in what these trousers represent. They were produced in the Rana Plaza garment factory, a building which housed production for many well known high street brands including Primark, Mango, Matalan and Benetton.

On the 24th of April 2013, garment workers in Rana Plaza were ordered to return to work despite rising concern about the safety of the building which had visible cracks in the walls. Tragically, hours later the building collapsed, killing 1,130 people. Most of whom were young women.

The incident, which remains the most deadly industrial disaster in recent history, symbolises the inherent flaw in the fast fashion system.

Short runs and aggressive pricing strategies have led to increased demands on productivity throughout the supply chain with the people at the bottom feeling the most pressure to produce more for less. Ultimately it is those who are the most vulnerable who pay the true cost for our clothes. 

The trousers reveal a broader story about the dark side of global supply chains.

They are not an example of exquisite craftsmanship or timeless design but what they represent forces us to question inner workings of the current fashion industry. They symbolise our detachment from production and the shift of focus away from respect for quality, craftsmanship and longevity. As consumer’s it is important to know the wider political context of the clothes we buy which is why I think these trousers deserve a place in one of the largest and most prestigious collections of decorative arts and design in the world. 

I hope that soon fast fashion will become a part of our history. An artefact to be regarded with sorrow and a story not to be forgotten.

The trousers are part of the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection. Objects are collected in timely response to major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing. Each acquisition raises different questions about globalisation, popular culture, political and social change, demographics, technology, regulation or the law.

This ongoing display, which changes each time a new object is collected, shows how design reflects and defines how we live together today.

Loved Clothes Last

The more I repair the things I own, the more I treasure them.

Why do we know more about the brands who sell our clothes than the people who make them?

The qualities that clothing was once principally judged, such as quality, durability and personal meaning have been replaced by trends which rotate on an almost monthly basis, brand obsession and prices that justify a quick and easy turnover of goods. Globalisation and free- market capitalism has pushed prices lower and production further away from the eye of the consumer.

Along the way, we have lost the tradition of making and repairing our own clothes and have forgotten the patience and skills required to do so. This loss of knowledge combined with provision of mass-produced cheap goods has eroded our understanding of the long-lasting value of clothes and tragically the people who make them. But we do not have to be passive to these changes.

Start a fashion revolution in your own wardrobe.

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Repair Cafe at Remakery Frome, 2017.

In my opinion, the best way to show respect to the clothes you own (and the people who made them) is to repair them. Repair is a great way to build a lasting relationship with the things we own and helps to rekindle the use of our hands. You don’t have to be an expert and often the most obvious fixes are the most beautiful. Below are a few fixes I have made on my favourite garments.

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I got these jeans second-hand three years ago and have lived in them. They are slightly stretchy so great for cycling. I have repaired the crotch more times than I can remember and have also mended many small holes that I got when climbing over a barbed wire fence. Last September I re-dyed them blue to give them a new lease of life. As the repaired patches begin to break again, I think it is soon time to say good bye to them as jeans but perhaps I will turn them into something else.

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This is a Toast dress I bought in 2014. I like to buy Toast clothing every now and then. The quality is good so I see them as investments. I love wearing this dress in any season, during the winter I wear it with long sleeves underneath. It is great for traveling because creases disguise well in the pattern. Two years ago I took it on a hiking trip. It was a perfect for when I wanted to dress up.  You might not be able to see from the photograph but I repaired a rip in the sleeve with some interfacing and a zigzag stitch.

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This jumper was given to me by a good friend, I think it used to belong to her uncle. It is a Ratia jumper made from pure wool. I love to wear it camping and on my bike in the cold because the wool is so warm and breathable. This winter it got a moth hole in the front so I decided to fix it with some visible mending. I added extra flowers so it blends in. This is a work in progress, I think I will add more details over time.

Drafting a resolution; Youth Fashion Summit 2017, Day 1

Working together with students from around the world to draft the first UN resolution on sustainable fashion practices.

At Youth Fashion Summit 2016, we explored the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and developed a manifesto of demands for the industry regarding a range of ethical concerns; from climate action and pollution to gender inequality and over consumption (read our full report here). After the success of last year, the Global Fashion Agenda and Copenhagen School of Design and Technology (KEA) decided to invite the same students back to transform our initial demands into a fully fledged resolution to present at Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2017.

Day 1

Conscious Luxury

Dax Lovegrove, Global Vice President of Corporate and Social Responsibility at Swaroski opened the event with a key note speech on conscious luxury. He spoke about Swaroski’s vision as a driver of positive change to do more than ‘less harm’. We learnt how to identify and discern between the different layers of impact and how to address each area on an individual basis. From ‘Footprint’- the ecological impact of the fashion industry, to ‘Mind print’- the consumer attitude towards sustainable consumption and finally ‘Political Print’ – how government policy can be used to support unity and positive change within the sector.

Ecological Agenda

We then broke off into smaller groups to review our demands from the previous year. We began developing a concrete action plan and set some initial targets to put to our stakeholders.  We used the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report created by The Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group to find facts that gave weight to our demands. The report draws on Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index and in-depth surveys of various fashion companies to create a comprehensive guide to the industry’s current environmental and social performance. As part of Flourishing; the ecological agenda team, I worked with Sustainable Development Goals 13,14 & 15 regarding climate action, life below water and life on land.

In the afternoon we worked on a negotiation strategy to use when discussing our demands with industry stakeholders the following day.

Voices from the industry

Scan 4eSusie Lau, fashion blogger and YFS ambassador encouraged us to think about how we can put the knowledge gained from Youth Fashion Summit into practice in our own careers. She emphasised the importance of story telling and making the subject of sustainable fashion more compelling. By referring to ‘alternative’ fashion instead of ‘sustainable’ fashion, Susie suggested we could reach a wider audience by stealth. It is vital mainstream fashion media take greater interest in the subject.

 

Simon Collins, former dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons closed the first day of events with a motivational speech on the role of the designer. Simon explained importance of designers in ‘creating beautiful solutions’ to everyday situations with vision first and strategy second. Simon advised us to focus on creating value rather than profit and to not be afraid of making mistakes.

Something to take away…

The first sentence in our draft resolution;

‘In order for our world to flourish we must protect and restore our natural capital’

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Fashion Revolution Week

Thinking about who made my clothes for Fashion Revolution Week.

For most consumers buying clothes is about choice…

 What style suits me best? Which colour do I prefer? What is it made of? Which size is most flattering? How much will it cost?

 We ask ourselves any number of stylistic questions before arriving at a decision. But the question that is so often forgotten is who made it? Most of the time we don’t stop to ask what life is like for the 75 million people in the global apparel market or how much they are paid.

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This matters because as consumers we hold the power. Every purchase we make says something about what we value. Fashion Revolution week is about raising awareness and empowering individuals to change the way fashion works. By asking brands ‘Who made my clothes?’ we are part of a global movement demanding greater transparency in the fashion supply chain. This is an essential step for improving the lives of people across the fashion landscape, from cotton farmers to garment workers.

 What you can do…

  •  Pressure your favourite brands

Hold them to account for the social and environmental impact of their business. Share the label of a piece of clothing on social media and ask the brand #whomademyclothes?

  • Write to a Politician

Let them know the welfare of the planet and the people making your clothes matters to you.

  • Buy better

Choose fair-trade or second-hand where you can – even if this means buying something more expensive less often.

  • Repair, reinvent, revive

Instead of buying new, try updating something you already own.

Find out more here.