“If you think about how much fashion there is, whether it be luxury or fast, it is sort of swamping the planet,” explained Stella McCartney in a recent interview with the BBC.

Daughter of the Beatles’ Paul McCartney, the sustainable fashion designer was speaking ahead of the opening of the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fashioned from Nature, which opened on Earth Day, explores the intricate and complex relationship between fashion and nature during the past 400 years.

A Calvin Klein dress constructed from recycled plastic bottles, a cape of cockerel feathers and a pineapple-fiber clutch handbag are among the 300 pieces in V&A’s most recent fashion exhibition.

Through exquisite works from Christian Dior, Dries Van Noten and Philip Treacy, the exhibit showcases how fashion trends continually draw on the power and beauty of nature. Other activations, such as Fashion Revolution and Vivienne Westwood look at the role of design in creating a more sustainable fashion industry.

Creative and sustainable pieces from McCartney are displayed alongside an upcycled dress by Christopher Raeburn and the Calvin Klein recycled plastic bottle dress donned by Emma Watson at the Met Gala 2016.

Calvin Klein Dress, 2016 Met Gala

Calvin Klein dress, Met Gala 2016 (Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The Calvin Klein multipiece frock, designed as part of the Green Carpet Challenge Collection with Eco-Age, is shown with an Erdem floral dress also from the Green Carpet Challenge.

With objects dating to the early 1600s, the exhibition includes a pair of earrings formed from the heads of two real honeycreeper birds from 1875 — a hugely popular item sold in enormous volume at the time — and an 1860s muslin dress decorated with the iridescent green wing cases of hundreds of jewel beetles.

The items are shown next to natural history specimens to indicate the ways fashion has used animal and insect materials in its designs and production through the decades.

The exhibition also examines raw materials used in the manufacturing of fashion. Arranged chronologically, it introduces the main fibers used in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as silk, flax, wool and cotton.

It also presents controversial materials, including whalebone, which is demonstrated in an X-ray by Nick Veasey of a pair of 1780s stays and a turtle shell used in a fan from 1700. 

While the exhibit charts the expansion of international trade, import of precious materials and introduction of man-made materials — which brought fashionable dress to the masses, but also contributed significantly to air and water pollution — it also presents a range of solutions to reducing fashion’s impact on the environment:

Some of these solutions are a dress grown from plant roots by the artist Diana Scherer, who uses seed, soil and water to train root systems into textile-like material; a bioluminescent genetically engineered silk dress created by Sputniko!, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and the National Institute of Agricultural Science, South Korea; and a tunic and trousers made from synthetic spider silk from Bolt Threads x Stella McCartney.

“I’m trying to look at technology; I’m trying to grow silk in a lab; I’m trying to use dying in a whole new way, and I don’t think you can tell the difference. It is science, but it is sexy science,” said McCartney.

Fashioned from Nature is not only an immersive exhibit that pays homage to the beauty and inspiration of nature, it is an urgent call to action for us all to live and dress more consciously.

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