London: “Fashioned from Nature”@ the V&A

It’s been a while since I’ve visited a fashion exhibition at the V&A, so I thought I might as well pop along to see “Fashioned from Nature,”  especially since the Frida Kahlo exhibition was booked up the day we visited (actually, we were intending to see Frida that day, because it finishes first (in November), but I wanted to see “Fashioned from Nature” too, so I wasn’t just settling. I’m not a Frida superfan, like the women I saw there dressed up like her, but I like her well enough (and can relate to having a unibrow, though I’m not as brave as she was and pluck mine), so I’ll go back to check it out on a day when I’ve pre-booked!). Admission to “Fashioned from Nature” is normally £12, but you get half off with a National Art Pass or National Rail 2 for 1 (which I advise doing).

  

“Fashioned from Nature” (which runs until January) is located in the same fashion gallery where I saw “Undressed,” and had much the same layout (probably because those cases don’t really look like they’re moveable). It explored “the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day,” and I have to say I much preferred the 1600-early 1900s part, which was the lower gallery. I was a little worried there would be things made of butterfly wings in here (given my lepidopterophobia), but aside from the framed butterflies you can see in the shop, the creepiest bug thing was the dress decorated with the iridescent wing cases of thousands of beetles (see below), and that was only creepy because I felt bad for all the beetles (their wing cases were admittedly beautiful though).

  

But plenty of other animals were horribly slaughtered to make these clothes, although there were a relatively small number of furs here, probably because it’s obvious that animals are killed for those. The exhibition preferred to focus on less well-known clothing materials. I knew about whalebone and its use in corsetry, of course, given my interest in the Victorians, but for some reason I’d always pictured it as more of a solid, bony substance (like, you know, the actual bones of a whale). I didn’t realise that whalebone actually refers to baleen, and it pulls apart in layers into flexible wire-like strands which can be used to line umbrellas or give hats shape. There were examples of bonnets and corsets here that had been x-rayed, so we could view the whalebone structure within. There was also information about how whole species of birds were going extinct due to the demand for feathers. In fact, when the RSPB was originally founded in 1889, it was called the Plumage League because its whole aim was to stop the feather trade. They conducted demonstrations in London of how feathers were harvested (I hope no birds were killed in those demonstrations, but they might have been!), and feathers eventually became unfashionable as a result, at least until synthetic imitations were invented (there was a Linley Sambourne cartoon (remember Linley Sambourne?) in here to show how women wearing feathers were caricatured as evil bird women, but I have to admit that it just made me want to wear some kind of awesome black feather cape so I could be a raven woman too, as long as the feathers were synthetic).
  
Fortunately, the exhibition wasn’t only full of things that animals were killed to make. It was also full of things made of natural materials like cotton where the harvesting and manufacturing processes led to lots of suffering for humans too (ok, yeah, still horrible)! It talked about the environmental impact of various industries and the grossest was probably the manufacturing of the dye used to make “turkey red” until they invented a synthetic version, as it involved blood, pee, AND poop (animal rather than human, but still). There’s a passage in Little House in the Big Woods where Pa threatens to buy Ma a “turkey red” piece of fabric for her new apron unless she picks a colour herself (she was protesting that she didn’t really need a new apron, and he wanted her to have it. He wasn’t being mean or anything), and now I see why that was enough to goad Ma into picking a more attractive fabric. It wasn’t just because of the colour! We tend to think of acid rain as more of a modern problem, but it has been a real issue since the Industrial Revolution because of all the smoke produced by the cotton mills. And of course this all had a human impact as well, in addition to just living with the effects of pollution, because the demand for cotton led to slavery in America and terrible working conditions for mill employees in England.
  
Therefore, the least depressing things here were the clothes that were merely patterned with things inspired by nature, like the charming waistcoat featuring crab-eating macaques, or the many gorgeous flower-patterned dresses (I particularly loved the banksia scarf, because it made me think of Joseph Banks, who banksia is named for), though probably slave labour was used to create the cloth in the first place, so really everything involved some kind of exploitation. I guess the good thing about this exhibition was that it made you realise that fashion comes at a cost beyond money.
  
I was less interested in the upstairs (and unfortunately, larger) gallery, which contained modern sustainable fabrics (it’s good they are sustainable, but the clothing they were used to make was way less beautiful than the antique pieces). The descriptions of how these fabrics were made were just too technical for me, and that’s what most of the text up here was about. I was intrigued by the leathers made from fungus and grapes, however, because they really did look pretty good, and obviously doesn’t harm animals. There was also a quiz where you could see what kind of sustainable fashion model you’d be likely to follow in the future (model as in a pattern of behaviour, not actual models), although it did seem to place a lot of emphasis on making your own clothing, which is not something I’m skilled at by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m picturing a future of me wearing a lot of ill-fitting potato sack dresses. There were loads of clothes up here, but the vintage fashions (particularly in the section showing unsustainable clothing of the past; I’m the worst, but how gorgeous is that leopard print gown?!) were really the only ones I found appealing (and those badass bird witch shoes, but there is no conceivable way a human could actually walk in those, so they’re basically useless). I mean, you can create cute retro styles from sustainable materials! It doesn’t all have to look gross and futuristic, just saying.
  

I complained about “Undressed” not being worth £12, and because “Fashioned from Nature” was in the same gallery, it wasn’t any bigger, so I also don’t feel this was worth paying full price, but £6 was OK. I did think all the information downstairs about historical clothing manufacture was fascinating, and I read some of the labels twice to make sure I understood everything, but I kind of skimmed over the upstairs gallery because it bored me. I am just way more interested in the past than the future and I would have been much happier with more historical fashions, but then I guess it wouldn’t have fit the exhibition’s brief of showing fashion to the present day (though a lot of it was about the future, something not mentioned in that blurb I quoted earlier). 3/5, but those more interested in fabric technology or science might get more out of it.

8 comments

  1. I feel that I’m reaching an age where I’m ready to wear things like that awesome, severe, black feather capelet-thingy. I believe it’s meant for descending a staircase slowly, looking fierce – like Bette Davis in Little Foxes. But of course, like you, I’d only want one if it was made from faux feathers.
    Yup, no turkey red for me. I had no idea what it was made from before this, so thank you – but no thanks.
    Oh my god, that leopard print dress. If I owned it, I’d be insufferable – making everyone stop and watch me walk around in it.
    Yeah, I’d be a potato sack-wearing, sad-sack in the future too. My sewing skills are definitely subpar, and I have some ridiculous Betty Boop kitchen curtains to prove it. (The choice of fabric was my boyfriend’s,believe it or not. Very strange.)

    1. For some reason, I also always thought turkey red was named after the animal, but it’s actually named after the country. Maybe everyone else knows this, but I think the lack of capitalisation threw me.
      The leopard print dress is fabulous, isn’t it? I feel like I’d have to wear long evening gloves and walk around calling everyone dah-ling.
      Betty Boop curtains? That’s an interesting choice of fabric for sure! I made curtains a couple of times, but the ones I made as a teenager (which are still in my old bedroom at my parents’ house) are just pieces of shimmery star and moon patterned fabric that I hung from rings. They’re not actually functional, since you can’t close them, but they look cool, and I was used to having sun in my face every morning back then. I made ones out of Halloween fabric when I first moved to London that I loved, but I haven’t been able to use them since I moved into my current flat since I don’t have the right kind of curtain rods. All I did with those was fold over a piece of fabric on the top and stitch it so I had a loop to stick the curtain rod through though, so it wasn’t exactly an intensive sewing project. I didn’t even bother to hem the bottoms.

      1. Oh, I love the idea of your Halloween curtains! I’d be much happier with them than Ms. Boop. I mean, I’m pretty kitschy but not THAT kitschy. The whole thing came about because I’d mentioned that I saw a neat print with 30s pin-ups on it (in a George Petty-vein) and he said he thought that’d be great. I told him where to find the fabric and he inexplicably came home with bright yellow curtains with large Boops all over it. I was … a bit speechless. But the good news is my sewing is so crummy that they’re falling apart now and will have to be replaced 🙂

      2. Oh no! There’s no way I would have been as nice as you in that situation and actually made the curtains! Nope, he would have been sent straight back to the store to get the correct fabric, regardless of whether or not we could return the Boop fabric. Glad to hear you won’t be stuck with them for much longer though!

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