I recently read an article detailing the burning of tens of millions of pounds worth of unsold stock by British fashion house Burberry which both baffled and irked me. The fact that the company owned up to the matter highlights a problem within the fashion industry that has existed for decades – companies would rather burn their waste, leading to damage to the environment, than allow for the possibility that it could be sold on for someone else’s profit. This is just one aspect of the harm that the industry is causing.
Fashioned from Nature, an exhibition currently on at the Victoria and Albert museum in South Kensington in London attempts to focus the visitor’s mind on the harsh realities of the damage that the fashion industry has caused and still continues to cause on the environment. Although this sounds incredibly depressing I hasten to add that as well as showcasing the bad, it also highlights the good, reflecting on new and increasing numbers of possibilities to reimagine the future and retribute for the mistakes of the past. The show includes items spanning roughly four hundred years, including pieces for both genders, and incorporating everyday and more formal wear.
Starting downstairs as one enters the exhibition, there are items from the eighteenth century and descriptions of the materials used and details of the processes with which they were created. In particular, there is a focus on the use of textiles such as silk and cotton, the latter with a rather obvious and infamous downfall to it, being the use of slaves to harvest and tend to the crop. Wool is another material that crops up time and time again and is still one of the most prevalent fabrics in the industry. Another very specific material that is shocking is the use of whale bone in women’s corsets and in other structural roles, with whaling a hugely controversial topic, and something which (hopefully) makes one’s skin crawl.
Moving through the exhibit, there are several items that jolt the viewer and cause serious thinking, for example a pair of earrings created from the heads of two Honeycreeper birds, and a dress constructed using the wings of 5000 jewel beetles. Now I am not a particular fan of insects but I also do not believe it necessary to rip the wings from them, however beautiful they are, in order to create a single item of clothing. Thank goodness mass production was not a problem in those days, only the rich and glamorous could afford to damage ecosystems and reduce specie numbers. Several birds have been specifically targeted, with peacocks at the top of the list, due to their beautiful tail feathers, which feature in many of the pieces included in the exhibition.
As well as the impact on both the manual workers and the animal kingdom, the exhibition focusses on the effects on the environment, with haunting images of chimneys billowing black smoke, and details of trade, both of animals and plants from across the globe, including places as far a field as Australia and Eastern Asia (obviously with the huge use of coal on the steam ships as the drawback). Mass production and the growth in the number of factories charged with the production of clothing items means that the negative impact of the fashion industry has multiplied beyond anything one could imagine. Not only is it the increased pollution from the growing number of factories, but also the poor condition of the labourers, and the amount of fabric needed for the requirements of a growing population and a generally growing desire to buy. This idea is reiterated throughout the show.
The curator merges the effects on the animal kingdom and the natural world by playing a repeated soundtrack of birdsong and animal noises blended with the sounds of machinery and manual labour, which heightens the visitor’s perception of the damage that the industry causes.
Once upstairs, the exhibition becomes more positive, with details of new methods of production which are more eco-friendly. Included within this section is the dress that Emma Watson wore to the Met Gala in 2016, which was created in collaboration with Calvin Klein with sustainability at the forefront of the design. The yarn used is made up of post-consumer plastic bottles, and the zips are fabricated from recycled material. Across the rest of this floor other suggestions are made regarding the re-using of old clothes, or the recycling of fabrics for new pieces. One leaves full of hope for the future of the industry.
Fashioned from Nature is on at the V&A in London until 27th January 2019.
Photography Miranda Smith.