Review: Fashioned From Nature

Editor’s note: Daniel Gauss reviews Fashioned from Nature, an exhibit curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and now at the Design Society in Shenzhen, China …

Textile factories in Great Britain fueled the expansion of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the beginning of our human-made, global ecological crisis. These factories, along with Britain’s global trade network, helped meet the world-wide demand for clothing made from American cotton, which not only led to air and water pollution but also to the expansion of slavery and, ultimately, the American Civil War. The first Industrial Revolution in Britain would lead to a vast increase in the British population and a consumer economy of affordable mass-produced goods that began long-term harm to the environment. Although we know of many evils in the contemporary clothing industry – low-wage workers in poorer countries, brutal working conditions, inhuman work hours, child labor – we must also acknowledge that the fashion industry currently produces about one-tenth of our carbon emissions while consuming and contaminating vast amounts of our water, often with microplastics inadvertently consumed by the fish we eat.

Fashioned from Nature, an exhibit curated at the Victoria and Albert Museum of London and currently showing in Shenzhen, China at the Design Society, presents an overview of the types of materials used in clothing production, and the use of natural motifs in clothing design, from 1600 until the present. Doing this also invites the elephant into the room, compelling a focus on the fashion industry’s ties to our historical and current ecological predicament. The show, however, optimistically presents a vision of a future of potentially environmentally sustainable fashion.

The first elaborate article of clothing one encounters in the Shenzhen show is an ornate dress created for a member of Britain’s social elite for appearances at the royal court in the 1760s. Near it is a map showing where the raw materials of the dress came from as well as where aspects of manufacturing occurred. Its raw silk came from Italy, Spain and the Middle East and the silk was woven in Lyon. Flax for the linen came from Northern Europe. The small amount of metals came from the infamous Potosi mines in Bolivia, where the Spanish used indigenous slave labor to extract silver to be made into the currency which would allow for an explosion of capitalism across Europe. Ultimately the dress was all brought together in London. This dress sets the stage for the show as the creation of such a garment entailed waste in its production and was the result of a global trade network. The trade network which allowed such extravagance and waste to occur would also allow for the spread and profitability of the textile industry through industrialization.

Therefore, the first lesson of the show seems to be that as long as fashion was just being created for the wealthy and aristocratic, or as long as families were producing their own clothing, production techniques and their waste products were a minor problem. When textile factories started burning coal to generate the steam to get the machines to run to meet a mass market, and dyes were used on a massive scale, then the production of clothing became an environmental issue. The wasteful production processes came first, then were magnified through industrialization. The goal now in the fashion industry seems to try to go back to square one and begin producing long-lasting clothing without the harmful waste involved.

So, it was not just coal from the factories that caused environmental problems from the fashion industry. We can show this by looking at the materials used and by starting with silk. The dyeing of silk (and other materials) created massive waste pollutants and released soap into water supplies. From 1864, for many decades, dyes contained benzidine, which caused bladder cancer. Linen was worn by all social classes and comes from the flax plant. To extract flax fibers, stalks had to be soaked in streams or pools of water. In this process, the stalks rotted and polluted the water. After wool was spun and woven, it was cleaned and shrunk to tighten its fibers. This produced oil, grease, soap, solid waste and dirt that went into local river systems. In Manchester, where most cotton was being processed in the first half of the 19th century, air and water pollution were rampant. Hydrogen chloride from the bleaching of cotton caused the first examples of acid rain in some places in Scotland. Cotton is also a “thirsty” crop which can easily exhaust water supplies. Industrialization magnified the problem of these pollutants being introduced into soil and water. So as long as families and wealthy tailors were doing this, problems were not perceivable on a large scale. There never was, however, “sustainable” fashion – industrialization showed this when it magnified production processes and the small amounts of contamination involved in clothing production increased dramatically.

The show also deals with some of the types of animals that have been killed in the name of fashion. We know that whales were over-hunted in the 19th century for their oil, but whalebone, or baleen (taken from a whale’s upper jaw), was also used to provide shape to women’s garments, to umbrellas and to hood-shaped bonnets. Beavers were used for felt hats. Indeed, beavers feature prominently on the flag of New York City as the Dutch came to Manhattan primarily to trade for these animals for the European fashion world. Clothing in the exhibit shows the silvery belly feathers of grebes used with velvet for accessories and trimmings. One dress contains 5,000 shiny beetle wings. Mother of pearl was collected by indigenous Australian divers at extreme risk to their safety. We see clothing with egret plumes, swan elder and goose down, and ostrich feathers. Boas of dead creatures showing their claws and heads were a fashion item. Sealskin and fur were useful for the winter. Over-hunting of seals reduced the population from 5 million to 300,000 before legal protection in 1911. There is one coat in the show which was made from 32 Russian wolves. The desire for crocodile, alligator, snake and lizard skins also led to over-hunting.

When activists began speaking up about the massive waste and pollution caused by the fashion industry, in the 1970s, the industry merely shifted to poorer countries that had minimal environmental protections and much cheaper labor. 1980s consumerism led to life-style stores encouraging the consumption of “fast” fashion, as synthetic fibers from oil and coal added to environmental problems. By the late 1980s, however, the excesses finally led to the beginnings of a popular backlash which was heard, and perhaps exploited, by the fashion industry, as it began to market ecologically friendly clothing.

As the show was curated in the UK, a number of British designers are mentioned as innovators in regard to developing more environmentally friendly clothing. Margaret Howell is mentioned for using long lasting fibers like linen. Recycling has now become a big trend and has been exemplified by Sarah Ratty who uses organic cotton and recycled plastic. Vivienne Westwood’s  “Save the Arctic” credo of: “Buy less, choose well, make it last” is mentioned. JW Anderson only uses flax where each part of the plant is used. Stella McCartney uses wood pulp and recycled nylon and cashmere. The American actor John Malkovich even gets a hat-tip as his clothing line employing flax only uses ground water and rain, no irrigation, and minimal pesticides, producing material more ecologically friendly than cotton. Levi Strauss has produced jeans using 96% less water for their denim. Nike launched Flyknit Racer trainers in 2012 using 90% less water and leaving an 80% less carbon footprint. Ferragamo uses fruit peelings. Vegea creates animal free leather from the stalks, seeds and skins of grapes not used for wine production. As 300,000 tons of clothing winds up in landfills in the UK each year, Rosie Martin has produced books encouraging people, and showing them how, to make their own clothes.

Although all of this seems promising, there are problems: 1) free trade outsourcing (with low-wage labor plus minimal environmental regulations), 2) new consumer groups in developing countries and 3) e-commerce are fueling non-sustainable fashion production. Wandering through the show one has to wonder whether making coats out of orange peels or artificial leather from grapes is the answer. Perhaps the automobile industry presents a good parallel or answer. Elon Musk created his business model on the premise that folks will only switch from gas guzzling cars to electric cars if it benefits them more – if the cars will save them money and perform and look better. Unfortunately, appealing to everyone’s conscience did not seem to dent the production of gas-fueled cars. The exhibit seems to imply that the model for sustainable fashion would need, it seems, to be similar. The fashion industry must find ways to produce attractive and more durable clothing at cheaper prices, while not contributing to greater carbon emissions or the pollution of our water supplies.