Fashion’s Glorification—and Devastation—of Nature

A 1760s court dress with ermine trimming.

A 1760s court dress with ermine trimming. PHOTO: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

With a 6-foot-wide skirt and lavish ermine fur trimming, the 1760s formal court dress is a showstopper. So too are the birds-head earrings and the gown embroidered with iridescent beetle-wing cases. But they are more than just beautiful fashion—they are objects derived in different ways from the natural world, and that has become an urgent issue for the fashion industry.

All three of the objects reflect the theme of “Fashioned From Nature,” an exhibition of more than 350 garments and accessories that explores the complex, shifting relationship between fashion and the environment.

Opening April 21 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the exhibition takes delight in the flights of fancy that nature has inspired, while tracing the fashion industry’s expanding impact on the environment. “It’s a bittersweet relationship,” said the show’s curator, Edwina Ehrman, senior exhibitions curator at the museum. Fashion, she said, has had “a very heavy environmental footprint.”

Organized chronologically in five segments, the exhibition opens with a section covering 1600 to 1800. Fashion in that era was the province of an aristocratic few, but their tastes were unabashedly global. An illustration linked to that extravagant 1760s court dress, also known as a mantua, reveals the far-flung sources of its materials: silk from Europe and the Middle East; dyes from the Caribbean, South America and Europe; ermine fur from Russia, the Baltic or North America. The silver for its metallic threads most likely came from mines in Potosí, in present-day Bolivia. “Even in the 1760s, fashion is underpinned by these international trading networks,” said Ms. Ehrman.

A man’s silk waistcoat embroidered in silk with a pattern of macaque monkeys, 1780-89.
A man’s silk waistcoat embroidered in silk with a pattern of macaque monkeys, 1780-89. PHOTO:VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

Spurred by exploration and colonial expansion, Europeans of the time avidly cataloged the natural world, and that interest quickly crossed into fashion. The macaque monkeys embroidered on a stylish French waistcoat of the 1780s, for instance, were copied from a new encyclopedia of natural history.

With the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, an expanding middle class staked its claim to chic attire, as more amateur naturalists took to the countryside. Ferns were especially sought-after as collectible specimens and left their fashion imprint on an evening dress embroidered in a tree-fern pattern, made around 1829.

Fashion’s mania for nature—and its toll on the animal kingdom—reached an alarming peak in the later 1800s, after the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III of France and a formidable fashion icon, wore a bonnet decorated with a stuffed hummingbird. “It’s exactly the sort of thing that inspires millinery copies,” said Ms. Ehrman, and it touched off a flood of illustrations that spread the bird-and-feather frenzy far beyond the French court.

Hummingbirds weren’t the only avian fashion victims. Earrings made from the heads of red-legged honeycreeper birds were enormously popular in the 1870s, and an iridescent cape from the 1890s made of cockerel and pheasant feathers reflected a continued fascination with plumage. The fashionistas of the 19th century prized iridescence in part because the uneven illumination from lamps and candles made the effect particularly compelling.

Earrings made from the heads of Red Legged Honeycreeper birds, circa 1875.
Earrings made from the heads of Red Legged Honeycreeper birds, circa 1875. PHOTO: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

But the impact on global bird populations was devastating, with species like the albatross—slaughtered by the millions for its breast feathers—brought to the brink of extinction. The situation led to some of Britain’s earliest animal-protection leagues.

The 20th century ushered in an era of synthetic fibers and fabrics, but nature remained an inspiration. A 1936 evening coat by designer Alix (Madame Grès) is a shell-patterned confection in cellulose acetate, silk and imitation pearl, with an iridescence that would put pheasant feathers to shame. Two decades later, Christian Dior envisioned women as hothouse flowers, with narrow, stem-like torsos blooming into dramatically full skirts. In 2010, designer John Galliano paid tribute to his predecessor’s flower power with a House of Dior collection that exaggerated the silhouette, topping it with a headdress resembling the colored cellophane used to wrap bouquets.

A cellulose acetate evening coat (detail), designed by Alix of Paris, 1936.
A cellulose acetate evening coat (detail), designed by Alix of Paris, 1936. PHOTO: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

In each section, the exhibition balances fashion’s pleasures with a look at its costs, from rivers polluted with toxic dyes to landfills clogged with discarded clothing. Those concerns gained momentum in the late 20th century. By the 1980s, designers started using fashion to call attention to environmental issues—including Katharine Hamnett, who called her 1989 collection “Clean Up or Die.”

The exhibition’s 21st-century section focuses on the environmental challenges facing the fashion industry and possible solutions. When she first conceived the show four years ago, Ms. Ehrman said, environmental impact played a lesser role in her thinking. But when she started planning the show, “I felt that I got the balance wrong, and that it actually needed to be far more about how we can design a much more sustainable industry.”

An ensemble by Stella McCartney, Winter 2017.
An ensemble by Stella McCartney, Winter 2017.PHOTO: STELLA MCCARTNEY

One of the environmentally conscious designers showcased is Stella McCartney, whom Ms. Ehrman calls “a great material innovator.” Her ensembles on view include pieces made in collaboration with Bolt Threads, creators of a bio-engineered fiber that mimics the structure of spider silk but is made from little more than yeast, sugar and water.

Taking an even more experimental approach, artist-designer Diana Scherer has trained the roots of oat plants to grow in mesh. “She has used this lacelike structure to create a dress,” Ms. Ehrman said. “I find it rather magical.”

The exhibition ends with viewers voting for one of four video scenarios outlining what fashion’s future might be like, including one on “living with less.” As the show’s creator, Ms. Ehrman has already cast her ballot. Sustainability “should just become part of fashion,” she said. “It should become absolutely everyday normal.”

Cape of curled cockerel feathers by Auguste Champot, France, circa 1895.
Cape of curled cockerel feathers by Auguste Champot, France, circa 1895. PHOTO: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON