Nature has inspired fashion for hundreds of years; from the muslin tunic created from the seed of the cotton plant, to the whalebone corset of the 17th century. Through its Fashioned by Nature exhibition, the V&A is looking at the ways in which the exploration of the natural world has satisfied human curiosity, expressed through fashion and textiles. The exhibition looks first at the exploitation of animals, natural resources and some of the unethical practices involved in manufacturing and industrialisation. In counterpoint to this, the exhibition then explores 21st Century efforts towards building an era of sustainable fashion, and the new technologies designers and brands are using to reduce the negative impact on the environment.


Fashion’s impact on the natural environment dates back to the 17th Century at least, when cotton, silk, wool and flax were the most popular fibres used in cloth-making. Clothes of the time included items like the ‘sea silk’ gloves shown below; the hair-like fibre is derived from the beard of a noble pen shell found in the Mediterranean sea. Insects were also commonly used to beautify garments; this Muslin dress from the 1860s is adorned with thousands of holographic green beetle shells in lieu of jewels. 


The exploitation of the natural world’s resources gathered pace during the 18th Century, with a sharp increase in the use of animal fur, bird feathers and animal bones. Whale bone was famously used to create the inner structure of women’s corsets and men’s walking canes, and has become a symbol for the exploitation of animals for personal gain and vanity, even to the point of extinction. 


Fast forward to the 21st Century and well-known designers and brands alike are becoming ever more conscious of the effects their products have on the environment. Designer Stella McCartney collaborated with Bolt Threads in 2017 to release her first fashion collection using bio-engineered fabrics, which use genetically-modified salt, water, yeast and sugar to produce a protein fibre that mimics spider silk, eliminating the use of water, pesticides, land and other polluting chemicals. 


Designer John Skelton combines the use of antique materials and handcraft to create unique fashion pieces that use visible darn stitches to make clothing look like they have been mended, thereby challenging the notion of throwaway fashion and presenting his creative commentary on how consumers should view the longevity of an item of clothing.


Sustainable textile pioneers, AO Textiles, teamed up with a collection of scientists and designers to develop a wearable paper fibre from wood pulp that can be recycled. The paper is treated and coloured using natural dyes, thus reducing the amount of chemicals and energy used. Gainsborough has collaborated with AO Textiles on past projects, always using natural dyes and dyeing techniques.


With the fashion and textile industry recognising its position as one of the biggest polluters in the world, ingenious innovations and the exploration of new materials and processes allow designers to combat the negative impact the industry’s activities have had on the environment for centuries. Fashioned by Nature paints a fascinating, and ultimately hopeful, picture of an industry at a time of great change.

Above – Dress: Property of Victoria & Albert Museum. Britain 1868-9 Cotton, gilded, metal thread and Indian Jewel Beetles

Above – Dress by Stella McCartney and Bolt Threads, London 2018