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Exhibition Review: Fashioned from Nature

Exhibition Review: Fashioned from Nature

Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK) April 21, 2018 to January 27, 2019.

Cape of curled cockerel feathers, Auguste Champot, France, ca. 1895 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum Press Office.

Cape of curled cockerel feathers, Auguste Champot, France, ca. 1895 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum Press Office.

“The slaughter wrought by the plume hunters is everywhere apparent. One of the work buildings formerly used by the guano company and later as a storehouse by the poachers is still standing. With a side torn out and left open to the weather … it is still filled with thousands of pairs of albatross wings. Though weatherbeaten and useless, they show how they were cut from the birds whose half-bleached skeletons lie in thousands of heaps scattered all over the island” [1]

One of the most striking objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition, Fashioned from Nature, is a large, white, albatross breast, which is mounted in a wood and glass case. The mount dates from the late 1800s and includes a short, descriptive note that reads: “Breast of the Albatross…Dressed and prepared for making Ladies Muffs, etc”. The object is just one of a number of items included in the exhibition that convey the barbarity and prodigality of the plumage trade: a pair of earrings (1785) made from the heads of red-legged honeycreepers, a fan (1880s) produced from wild turkey feathers and a stuffed hummingbird. Yet, it is the image of the albatross—most famously referenced in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s cautionary poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798)—that perhaps best encapsulates the message of this timely and thought-provoking exhibition. Driven to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s, and currently one of the world’s most endangered bird species directly as a result of human behavior, they represent a haunting reminder of our destructive relationship with the environment, a key theme throughout the exhibition.

The exhibition, which was curated by Edwina Ehrman, comprises 300 objects and spans a comprehensive timescale, from the 1600s to the present day. Arranged chronologically across two floors, the first part of the exhibition charts the relationship between fashion and industrialization, highlighting the use of nature both as a source of inspiration and exploitation. Across the gallery, historical garments are thematically divided by material origin, bringing the viewer directly into contact with the plants and animals from which they were made. For example, a display case containing an elaborate 1760s silk and ermine-trimmed mantua gown includes a taxidermic specimen of an ermine, as well as a fascinating collection of natural silkworm specimens, including larvae, pupae, and cocoons. Elsewhere, the soft and lustrous materiality of raw silk thread is reinforced in a c. 1890s skein of silk, which was cultivated in Hackney, East London. Other items in this section also introduce the viewer to other prominent trades within the broader fashion industry and include detailed displays relating to men’s beaver hats, women’s whalebone stays, and mother-of-pearl buttons and fans.

Emphasis on the material origins of artifacts also brings into sharp focus the global nature of fashion and, by extension, accounts of human oppression and labour.

Emphasis on the material origins of artifacts also brings into sharp focus the global nature of fashion and, by extension, accounts of human oppression and labour. The rise of cotton in the early-nineteenth century, for example, is thoughtfully presented through a selection of predominantly white men‘s and women’s garments, which are accompanied by scatterings of fluffy cotton flowers, as well as images of slavery and pollution. The result is effective: the ‘morality’ historically associated with ‘clean’ cotton clothing juxtaposed with the brutal and often bloodied reality of their production. Similarly, the rise of rubber in western markets is contextualized within the broader context of the Amazonian rubber trade, including reference to the Putumayo atrocities, which saw thousands of Peruvians enslaved, tortured and murdered. Such topics do not typically feature within the context of traditional dress historical studies and serve as an important reminder of the social cost of fashion and its broader environmental impact.

As a dress and fashion historian, I particularly enjoyed the exhibition’s historical focus on materials; however, I would have liked to see more space dedicated to the use of leather. After all, leather was a key material in early modern fashion and clothing. Like textiles, it was used for a wide variety of garments, from staple items including breeches and stays, to everyday accessories such as boots, shoes, and gloves. Reflections on leather, and the broader leather industry, would also have helped reinforce the vast contribution made to fashion by domesticated animals such as cows and pigs, often overlooked in historical studies in favor of more foreign and exotic-looking species.

Earrings made from heads of Red Legged Honeycreeper birds, circa 1875 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum Press Office.

Earrings made from heads of Red Legged Honeycreeper birds, circa 1875 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum Press Office.

Upstairs, the second part of the exhibition focuses primarily on contemporary fashion, bringing the viewer into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Exhibits are detailed and numerous, and continue to reflect nature as source of inspiration, as well as a variety of other themes including: the development of synthetic materials, fashion activism, contemporary approaches to fashion ‘sustainability’ and the impact of modern-day consumerism. There is much to consider here, and rightfully so, from the exquisite workmanship of a c. 1997 Jean Paul Gaultier beaded ‘leopard-skin’ gown, to the macabre materiality of a black 1930s Colobus monkey-fur cape, to the innovative, though largely experimental, development of new bio-materials produced from plants and fungi alike.

In terms of sustainability, much is made of the design potential of recycled plastic, exemplified by items such as Emma Watson’s much-publicized 2016 Met Gala gown (produced in collaboration with Calvin Klein and Eco Age) and a 2017 pink, pleated dress from H&M’s “Conscious Collection.” Associated issues of synthetic-fiber pollution and micro-waste are also acknowledged through the inclusion of recent laundry innovations, such as the GuppyFriend Washing bag. Such approaches and measures are a step in the right direction. However, they are also grossly insufficient, given the current scale and severity of micro-plastic pollution [2]. Moreover, they do not tackle the burning issue of the industry’s reliance on perpetual economic growth, which, as has been argued, remains at the heart of our current environmental crisis [3]. With this in mind, it would be refreshing to see industry giants do more than offer technical and/or recycled-plastic ‘solutions’ to a problem that urgently requires radical social, political, economic, and environmental change. Until then, perhaps there is little that distinguishes us from nineteenth-century plume hunters, or indeed, Coleridge’s mariner, whose failure to appreciate the interconnectedness of all living creatures resulted in his inevitable demise: “I looked upon the rotting sea/ And drew my eyes away/ I looked upon the rotting deck/ And there the dead men lay” [4].

Notes:

[1] H.R. Dill, Report of an Expedition to Laysan Island in 1911: Under the Joint Auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture and the University of Iowa (Washington DC: US Department of Agriculture, 1912) p.26.

[2] B. Henry, K. Laitala, I.G. Klepp, Microplastic Pollution from Textiles: A Literature Review, Project Report 1 -2018, Consumption Research Norway – SIFO. Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences. Available: https://www.hioa.no/eng/About-HiOA/Centre-for-Welfare-and-Labour-Research/SIFO/Publications-from-SIFO/Microplastic-pollution-from-textiles-A-literature-review.

[3] Kate Fletcher, “Towards a Future Framework for Fashion”. Blog Entry, 21 November 2017. http://katefletcher.com/blog/ .


[4] S.T. Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, (reprint), (Boston: L. C. Page & Company, 1900) p.16.

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