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V&A Exhibition: Fashioned from Nature

Edwina Ehrman, Fashion Curator of the new V&A exhibition, Fashioned from Nature gave a lecture on her thought process during the curation the exhibition. Opened in time for Fashion Revolution Week, this insightful exhibition explores the relationship between fashion and nature as both a source of fibre and a design influence. It tackles the complex task of educating on how the fashion industry has become a polluter of the Earth beginning in the 1600’s through to predicting scenarios of how the industry will tackle it’s carbon footprint in 2030. 

‘We tried to explore a very complicated relationship between fashion and the natural world. The fashion industry has a terrific impact on the environment. Said to be the second most damaging industry in the world’ Edwina Ehrman was being more optimistic and considers it to be within the top five. Overall, the Fashion Industry has had over 400 years of impact on our environment and this is what I found most enlightening about the exhibition, as I considered the 1950’s to be the starting point of fashion toxifying the environment.

man’s waistcoat embroidered with macaque monkeys from around 1780 to 1789 copyright V&A

‘If we are going to change our practices and mind sets we have to remember why we value nature. The way in which we celebrate our connections with nature in textiles and in garment form.’ Inspiration taken from nature is at its most paramount when viewing the 18th Century garments. Edwina explains that ‘during the 18th century natural history books were the most popular books in Britain. It engaged people, we were a trading nation with voyages of exploration, merchants came back with extraordinary range of specimens. We really wanted to organise them, to order them, categorise them.’ Included is a man’s waistcoat embroidered with macaque monkeys from around 1780 to 1789 and an silk evening dress intricately embroidered with ferns, which Edwina thinks could have been inspired by the gift of a St Helenian tree fern to Kew Gardens in 1822 (Dress from Messers Harrods Ltd. dated 1829). Edwina spent a lot of time working with her colleagues at the Natural History Museum to understand the context of the items such as this dress.

The exhibition is organised chronologically, which Edwina clarifies ‘enables me to tackle how to explain the increasing scale. From 1600 to 1800 in this period fabrics and dress were almost entirely handmade. Energy comes from Water, animals, humans. There is already pollution but it is limited. There is hunting but the consumer base is small and doesn’t have the same impact as it does in the next century. We look at the staple fibres – silk, wool cotton and flax.’ I’m particularly squeamish about garments made from animal fur and I swiftly walked past these cabinets. But hearing Edwina’s reason for including them made sense: ‘The raw materials came from all over the world, very expensive status symbols and the beginnings of animals becoming to be endangered.’

Popular luxury styles were already having an impact on nature as early as the 17th century. ‘The fashion for beavers fur hat was so great even by early 1600 European beavers were so depleted the French and British were driven to compete with each other find new supplies in what we now know as Canada.’ Edwina selected a modern day photo of a beavers in the wild so viewers could link the hat with it’s source. She wanted to show that ‘our ancestors were not complacent and many were just as concerned as we are today’ on the impact fashion was having on the environment. ‘We found very interesting early letters from 1760’s onwards with pollution concerns about the rivers around Leeds from wool dying. Into the 19th century these things goes beyond letters and court cases to campaigns and visible presence on the street. Britain was the first to set up societies to protect animals and then birds.’

Once cotton is starting to be used on a larger scale during the 19th and 20th centuries, colour starts to be paramount in the cases, specifically a striking mauveine dress discovered by the English chemist William Henry Perkin in 1856. ‘In the 19th century we get synthetic colours. Spun glass. Rubber, very important to industry and very useful to fashion. Pineapple fibre, lace bark, vegetable ivory and sea silk. Many people in Britain were living in the empire and encouraged to bring back raw materials to Britain as we were a great manufacturing nation.’ Edwina explains why the cases start to become busier as the viewer moves through the years. ‘In the 19th century 93 % of what we imported were raw materials and what we exported was about the same amount. Our entire economy was based on manufacturing for home use and export. Mechanisation, the use of steam power, coal and non-renewable fossil fuel’. The British population tripled and this coincided with new ways to sell fashion such as department stores, chain stores plus ‘ more sophisticated ways to persuade people to buy clothes to explain why they might need than they thought. So the whole system is built up on every side.’

Continuing upstairs we are greeted by a dress Emma Watson wore on the red carpet to the MET Gala in 2016. The only completely sustainable dress in the exhibition and made by Calvin Klein who worked in collaboration with Olivia First from Eco Age. ‘One of the leaders of the sustainable fashion movement, Emma Watson does what she says, she wears sustainable clothes on the red carpet and every day wear. She wrote the foreword in the book, she explains very clearly why she is so passionate about it.’ Edwina illustrates her reason for asking Emma Watson to contribute.

The cases on the mezzanine level are named by fibres including Tencel the first fibre to be made in a closed system. The 20th and 21st century displays are linked by an ‘Activists Island’. Edwina said she was ‘very keen to include activists’ and goes on to describe it as not looking ‘museumy, less organised’, which was the look she was hoping for to display posters, T-shirts with slogans, outfits worn by activists such as Katherine Hamnet and Vivian Westwood. Behind the ‘Island’ are large screens showing films that ‘start with what we love about nature and then move to the impact and why people are protesting.’

‘The design of the 21st century displays, we hope we know the problem by now. It is all about solutions. We have a long way to go and we need a range of approaches. We have had tried traditional [methods] in our armoury since 1600. What I have been saying is that we as consumers can ask questions. Who made my clothes? How were they made? What are they made of. Things the shop assistants can’t tell us. If we knew these things we might make better choices if we want to.’ Edwina moves on to thank Stella McCartney for her valuable contribution. Speaking to the BBC, Stella McCartney believes fashion has long had a damaging impact on our environment.

Coming to the end of the exhibition, new innovative substrates are shown and classed as ‘Future Fabrics’. An alternative leather dress made from by-product of the wine industry known as Vegea is the first time the dress has been on show outside Italy. ‘I was delighted when it arrived as I wanted to feel it – and it does feel like leather’ Edwina tells us. There is also a dress made from orange fibre created in Sicily from orange rind and orange pips and designed by Tiziano Guardini. A bag made from Piñatex, a bonded fibre made from the leaves of pineapples. The Cambridge scientists who have created a new dying process were excited to see a dress made from oat roots created by Diana Schere. According to Edwina they said ‘this is is the one with the most possibilities’.

dress made from oat roots created by Diana Schere, copyright V&A

The final installation, Fashion Futures 2030, is a collaboration with the Centre of Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion. ‘The centre have imagined four scenarios of what fashion might be like in 2030. You can fill in a questionnaire, results go into a research project, you are told your vision of the future matches this film’ The films are thought provoking, engaging, they linger in your mind afterwards.’

‘I wanted a way to get in something that would communicate on another level….particularly to young people. They chose to look at the fashion cycle through 5 every day objects. The fashion cycle is design, make, acquire, wear, bespoke. If a viscose dress is linked to acquire, touch the dress and a film comes up on screen. It is my favourite one, like going to the till and the paper comes out of the till on what you spent but this one tells you what it is made of, its carbon footprint it is – chop or squander, chop or cherish and what its footprint would be if it was made in Tencel. It is clever and it is funny. Edwina summarises:

“I love fashion we just have to find better ways to create it. I have one message – please talk about this, discuss and debate”

Edwina concludes that we can learn four things from the past:


  1. Education and activism do work. They may take time but they work
  2. Legislation provided it has got teeth and financial inducements definitely can help and affect real change
  3. Science and technology are vitally important. Often science can lead us in the wrong direction but it can also lead us in the right direction. Science, like fashion is creative
  4. We can also learn from the clothing habits of our ancestors. That means people of my mothers generation who cared for their clothes in a way that I don’t. We need to look after our clothes. Find out what they are made of, appreciate them more for their fabrics, not just what they look like and wear them for longer and before we buy think, do I really need this?

‘It is easy to go to a shop and think “oh, I like that” and you buy it and get home and not so sure about that and it sits there. I buy clothes to cheer myself up and I’m gradually trying to cure myself of this habit. I’m a novice, I have a lot more to learn but I have become engaged with this and I feel optimistic about the future’.

Fashioned from Nature is on at the V&A in London until 27 January 2019. This is a summary of Edwina Ehrman’s lecture for a V&A Members Event about Fashioned from Nature exhibition on 20th April 2018.


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Fashion Revolution Week: #whomademyclothes?

‘Who made this’ isn’t the first thought that pops into mind when shopping. Usually the thought process is fit, colour, suitability, affordability or just because it is has been one of those days and that cute little red jumper will cheer me up. The social enterprise, Fashion Revolution , are campaigning to raise awareness of our thought processes when shop so we consider ‘who made my clothes?’, where they come from and the thousands of processes that have taken place before our purchases hang in our wardrobes. Fashion Revolution was created by people working in the fashion industry following the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013. The building in Bangladesh, collapsed killing 1138 people, most of whom were garment workers. The disaster highlighted the conditions many people across the world are working in to produce cheap clothes for the high streets in the West.

‘It is the retailers fault for demanding cheap prices’ is one chain of thought. Having worked in retail head offices for three large UK high street companies I know the issue is more complex than this. All the companies I worked for had stringent rules such as no child labour and the manufacturer was required to pay a minimum wage. They had teams of buyers and quality assurance managers who would visit the factory several times a year to enforce these checks. But the risk is the buyers and QA teams are only shown the best factories and not shown where the work might be sub-contracted to, perhaps smaller, less ethical factories. However the retailer is not fault free and the low price they demand leads to the manufacturer having to resort to other measures.

As a customer, we are not an innocent party. The UK high street is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy apparel. We demand lower prices and the stores seem to be constantly on sale. We have a powerful role to play in improving working conditions for the people who make our clothes. Fashion Revolution are asking us to campaign to our favourite high street stores and ask them to reveal their supply chain and tell us about the people who are making our clothes. Head over to their website to find out how to get involved. Supply chain transparency is key in preventing future disasters and improving the lives of textile workers around the world.

Back in February I attended a discussion panel as part of the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne. The panel discussed ethical fashion from the water and pesticides required to grow cotton through to the billions of tons of clothes that are being thrown into landfill. I wrote an article on the outcomes of the discussion for award winning Pebble Magazine. Read the article here and and pick up tips on how to reduce the fashion waste problem. There were two big messages I took away from the festival in Melbourne: Fashion supply chains are complex and it is going to take years to get it right. So as a customer, I need to decide what values are most important to me when buying clothes. When I started an earlier version of this blog I created a list of values that were most important to me when going shopping. I’ve posted the original below as I think it is still valid several years later. Of course, not every product is going to tick every box but three or four would start to make a difference against fast fashion.

The second take away from the panel was the importance of buying second hand or vintage clothing. It might take longer to find the right style and size but with a bit of extra effort it prevents waste. A thought goes out to the people who made it and knowing that I am giving their hard work a new lease of life. The Ellen McCarthur Foundation report ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ recommends by just wearing clothes for longer is the ‘most powerful way to capture value, reduce pressure on resources and decrease negative impact’.

Fashion Revolution week runs all this week. You can find out more about their campaign and how to get involved here.

Coming up on the blog this week I will be talking to Nadien Klages who makes clothes for children from jeans and shirts worn by the children’s parents. I’ll also be talking to super crafter and upcycler Barley Massey who founded Fabrications in Hackney.

At the Sustainable Living Festival I took part in a fun workshop on how to refashion a man’s shirt into a dress or skirt. Barley teaches similar courses in Hackney on how to re-work your clothes. Or get in touch if you are interested in joining a craft group in Bow, East London.