The V&A in London is hosting an exhibition these days entitled Fashion from Nature. If you are living within the Greater London area and care about the relationship between the most ‘artificial’ and the most ‘genuine’ realm of human experience, you should definitely make some time for it, it is a really interesting show. It focuses on two distinct themes: the way the modern fashion industry has exploited and destroyed the natural environment through its production processes, and the way nature has served as an inspiration to fashion and its designs through the ages. Both themes are dealt with in a competent fashion, although given the visual nature of the displays, the latter was presented in a more captivating way, while the discussion of the environmental costs of the Fashion System was mostly confined to the explanatory tablets that accompanied the displays. Between visual and textual, in fashion, the former usually wins.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the exhibition were the displays that dealt, or didn’t deal, with the tension between these themes. The beautiful flower design of Christian Dior silk taffeta dress were probably created in a process that involved all the environmental problems explained in the exhibition.
In turn, some of the outfits addressing the latter issue were clearly less than subtle and sublime – which might be the very point, as this ensemble by Vivienne Westwood demonstrates. Instead they served as protest signs for the environmental cause they endorsed.
There are some garments that bridge the concern for the environment with the aesthetics of contemporary fashion. Somewhat lost in the midst of all the displays is a dress from Alexander McQueen’s famous Plato’s Atlantis runway, alas, without the reptile shoes. Perhaps the only way to appreciate McQueen’s brilliance in his sartorial musings about the future of mankind in a water-covered world is to see the video of the original show. More prominently displayed are the attempts by Stella McCartney and Sarah Ratty to explore new fabrics, based on recycled or renewable materials and to develop what has become known as ‘sustainable fashion’.
Two critical reflections spring to mind:
- Firstly, what difference can the limited scope of ‘sustainable fashion’ make in a global fashion system that is increasingly based on ‘fast fashion’? I recognise the ethical impetus behind the desire to make fashion production less environmentally destructive by McCartney and her peers. But how can this be ‘scaled up’ to make a significant difference? Can we really expect the clothes we buy at M&S, Macy’s and other stores (or the Internet) to be made of renewable or recycled materials anytime soon?
- Secondly, how often does ‘ethical fashion’ become an advertisement gimmick for companies that are in fact notorious for their role in the fast fashion production system and the concomitant environmental problems? H&M is represented in the ethical fashion section with a dress from its Conscious Collection, ‘made from plastic recovered from oceans and waterways’. It would be interesting to find out what the share of this Collection is compared to the profits reaped from the regular fast fashion stuff they shill all over the world.
There are no easy solutions to these issues. For better and for worse, the fashion industry is woven into the fabric of globalised capitalism, and as long as ‘ethics’ and concerns for the environment run up against the demands of the bottom-line, there seems little hope that fashion can contribute to a different way of being-in-the-world that would be required to prevent the catastrophe that looms on the horizon.