Woven silk train for an evening dress, France or Britain, c. 1897-1905. Photograph by Vee Speers courtesy of the V&A.

Image Vee Speers © V&A

Forget Fur: Plastic Clothes Are the Next Fashion Faux Pas

A new exhibition at the V&A explores the hold nature has long had over clothing designers—and why plastic may be the fashion faux pas of the future.

by Hettie Judah
Apr 19 2018, 5:50pm

Woven silk train for an evening dress, France or Britain, c. 1897-1905. Photograph by Vee Speers courtesy of the V&A.

Image Vee Speers © V&A

In the 1920s, a cape made from the long, jet-black fur of a Colobus monkey was the height of animalistic chic, endowing the fashionable person wearing it with the dead animal’s exotic, playful spirit. For the late Victorians, ostentatious stoles and muffs trimmed with the tails, paws, and heads of ermines, minks, and foxes were considered charming, and carried the added cachet of proving the rare furs were genuine. From the 1870s comes a pair of drop earrings decorated with the iridescent blue heads of a pair of hummingbirds, still feathered, dangling down from their own long beaks.

The hummingbird earrings. Image courtesy of the V&A.

All are among the items in Fashioned From Nature at the V&A Museum in London, a show that probes fashion’s relationship with the natural world right to its freakiest recesses. (Anyone fancy a muff made from a dead albatross? No? How about a ballgown covered in dead insects?)

Fashioned From Nature, which opens this weekend, is not all a disapproving tsk-fest: there are gorgeous embroideries inspired by natural history illustrations and patterns lifted from botanical prints. As curator Edwina Ehrman points out, however, all sprung from a craze for exotic discoveries that had its roots in popular and celebrity culture.

In the 1860s, newspapers across Britain published extracts of Henry Walter Bates’s gripping first-hand adventure tale The Naturalist on the River Amazons. “What came up over and over again were the descriptions of hummingbirds and how beautiful they were,” says Ehrman. “How they hovered around the flower and how in South America they were called kissing birds and how they jousted with the bees to get the pollen.” For an audience sitting in cold grey Britain, the descriptions sounded magical, suggests Ehrman: “I think people wanted to take part in this extraordinary world that was opening up.”

The hummingbirds also had “a kind of fashion moment in 1859 when the Empress Eugenie was reported to be wearing a hummingbird perched on the branch of a lilac in her bonnet,” says Ehrman. “A couple of years before John Gould had dedicated a recently discovered hummingbird to her called the Heliodoxa imperatrix. I’ll bet she was wearing that.”

Image courtesy of the V&A.

A set of animal prints made in the same period outline the Euro-American attitude to the natural world as a bountiful resource, there for the benefit of mankind, and available to be used for profit. Creatures portrayed in the mid-nineteenth century Graphic Illustrations of Animals: Shewing their Utility to Man, In their Services During Life and Uses After Death include the whale, walrus, and elephant. The latter was deemed useful when living for hunting tigers, and after death, for its ivory, which was much favored for high fashion accessories such as fans. (The ongoing taste for ivory has had a deadly impact: a century ago some five million elephants were thought to have lived across Africa: today there are less than 500,000.)

Exotic though they may seem, we’ve not moved much past this taste for status symbols fashioned from bits of fancy dead animal. Though a number of designers are vowing to stop using fur and other animal skins, others remain steadfast: Céline, The Row, and Hermès’s most expensive handbags are stitched from crocodile skin, and Fendi, though not technically a fur atelier, is known for their inventive fur coats. Then, as now, the weird cuteness of small furry things added to the appeal: “It’s just a very odd sensation when you pick up a fur, because it’s still very animal like, particularly when they’ve got heads and tails attached,” says Ehrman. “It’s a bit like picking up your cat. And when they were photographing women in the late nineteenth, earlier twentieth [centuries] wearing fur, it’s almost like they’re wearing their pet round their necks, like they were being protected by a friendly creature.”

Photograph courtesy of the V&A.

Though animal heads and feet are now less common features of high fashion accessories, the fur trade has clawed back territory in recent decades by associating with creative high fashion designers and by abstracting its materials into coveted accessories like “cute” handbag trinkets. But the luxurious associations of fur and precious skins feel (almost) like spectacular distractions from fashion’s most important impact on the natural world as a mass polluter (fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world).

Bad news for PVC fetishists and fans of wipe-clean clothing: Ehrman says she has been particularly shocked by how polluting plastic-coated materials are. “Like all materials, so much depends on how it’s produced and processed, but PVC is very difficult to dispose of. It lingers for a very long time and it gives off toxins.”

There are few natural materials that come off well from a close examination of their production, be it the Bombyx mori caterpillars boiled or steamed to death inside their cocoons for the production of silk, or the water guzzled by the cotton industry. Textiles like fleece—once thought of a wonder product, up-cycled from old plastic drinking bottles—shed plastic microparticles back into the water system. It’s hard not to wonder whether future generations are going to look back on our own use of these materials with the kind of disgust that we now reserve for tortoiseshell swagger sticks, whalebone corsets and hats with stuffed birds of paradise perched on the brim.

Photograph courtesy of the V&A.

The exhibition does suggest alternatives, most of which are in the experimental phase. Among them are textiles made from citrus pulp and pineapple fibers, and paper strong enough to use for clothes but fully compostable for those unable to kick the fast fashion habit. Appealing to our basic tendencies, perhaps, but still looking like a win-win is the Italian “leather” made from stalks, seeds, and skins of grapes left over from wine production. Park Avenue ladies sipping rosé with Birkins made from grape skin? A bad boy in a leather jacket made from plant stalks? Leather daddies in seed-based harnesses? Giddy prospects indeed.

Alexander McQueen