The current exhibition Fashioned from Nature at the V&A (2018) tells the story about how nature both inspires dress and is also fundamental to the materials that fashion dress.
Using archive material from the V&A the exhibition develops the narrative about our use of different natural objects, symbols and materials to fashion dress.
Some of the more unexpected objects were fans, which of course used bone, mother of pearl and ivory for the handles and feathers, insects and birds for decoration. (See Fig. 1)
Edwina Ehrman (2018) explains that all types of creatures were used to adorn hats and trims. Lesley Ellis Miller (2018) goes further and discusses the use of re-cycled trimmings that were re-used to add luxury to a textile, worn by the political and social elite.
From 1600 The English East India Company was the main reason that Britain imported exotic materials from the East. Textiles, carpets, jewellery, silk, fans and tea were among Britain’s main imports.
Silk was not made in great quantities in Europe because of the climate so China became a very important trading nation. Silk was an indicator of wealth and status. Wool too was important because of its softness and use for tailoring. Linen and cotton were worn by all classes of society in a variety of weights and textures. (Ehrman, 2018)
Nowadays we shun fur as being produced in animal farms under terrible conditions but in the past there was no heating so fur kept us warm and was a natural re-use of animal skins discarded after hunting for food.
Fur was valued for its lustrous appearance and became a luxury product, seen in many paintings worn by royalty and then in vogue in the twentieth century worn by Hollywood celebrities.
Clare Brown (2018) tells us that the natural world has provided inspiration for designers. Illustrations from books on herbals and plants provided motifs that could be copied and applied to textile patterns and embroideries.
Once printing became commonplace in the nineteenth century periodicals and books provided information about natural history. Museums of natural history gave the middle classes access to the natural world in a way that had not been possible before. (See Fig. 2)
- Fashioned from Nature – The first UK exhibition to explore the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day
Fashioned from Nature, edited by Edwina Ehrman, V&A Publishing, London. 2018.