As a student of Fashion Design back in the late sixties, my fellow students and I regularly haunted the halls of the V & A museum for inspiration. Many years have passed since then and my life has taken a different direction but I still find the V & A a wonderful place to research for my writing.
It was an added excitement to make my most recent visit to the museum with two of my former fashion student friends, Isabel and Penny. We hadn’t seen each other for over forty-five years and I wore my bright pink coat so that Penny would find me easily at Paddington. There was a lot of catching up to do and we made our way to the museum to meet Isabel, chattering non stop!
It was entirely appropriate that the purpose of our excursion, apart from our reunion, was to visit the Fashioned by Nature Exhibition. This explored the relationship between clothing and Nature from 1600 to the present day. We saw fabulously embroidered materials depicting moths and butterflies, exotic flowers, sea life and animals.
Some of the exhibits were macabre by today’s standards. As students all those years ago we thought nothing of wearing 1930’s fox fur stoles, complete with head, tail and feet. Fashion has always celebrated Nature, sometimes with devastating results as seen in the demand for fur, feathers, reptile skin and whalebone.
Now I feel really uncomfortable seeing endless displays of gorgeous birds stuffed and sculpted into decorations for hats. One glorious dress, shimmering with green iridescence, gave me a bit of a shock when I realised that the ‘sequins’ were actually made from 5,000 beetle wings. You can see this dress, together with other illustrations and information about the exhibition, here
The ridiculous panniered dresses of the seventeenth century were built on supports of baleen (whalebone) and, although the silks were luxuriously and beautifully embroidered, I couldn’t help thinking the wearer would look like a cumbersome upholstered sofa as she manoeuvred her way through doorways.
The more modern section of the museum concentrated on highlighting the social and environmental aspects of fashion. The current era of high consumerism and disposable fashion takes things to a new level and the exhibition explored ways to develop a more responsible fashion cycle.
After the unsettling experience of seeing how Man has plundered Nature’s riches over the years in order to clothe him, and herself in finery, it was exciting to see some unusual alternative fabrics made from pineapple fibre, plant roots, vegetable ivory and spun glass. I was interested in a fabric called Vegea, a leather-like material made from a by-product of wine production.
I had anticipated a fun day out and the opportunity to meet up with old friends but I hadn’t expected the exhibition to be so informative and thought provoking.
Fashioned From Nature at the V & A Museum runs until 27th January 2019.