The natural world has always inspired fashion through patterns, prints and design as well as being a source of materials used to make clothes and accessories. Nature is an enduring theme and one that has never fallen out of fashion due to its timelessness and universality.
The V&A’s current exhibition Fashioned from Nature looks at how the natural world has influenced fashion and been a source of material for the production of clothes from the 17th century until the present – the downstairs gallery focusing on both these aspects. For centuries the demand for materials such as wool, fur and bone stimulated both domestic and foreign trade. Several places in Europe became famous for a particular product: such as England for its wool, Italy for silk and France and present day Belgium for lace. From the 17th century onwards, the establishment of global trade links and the acquisition of colonies outside Europe resulted in the introduction of materials and fabric such as cotton, pineapple fibre as well as the skins from animals such as the crocodile. The later development of faster means of transportation and production meant that such materials became more widely available and cheaper.
Another main aspect of the exhibition is with regards to the influence of nature in fashion design, with the enduring popularity of floral prints and embroidery seen in extant pieces and fabric swatches from the 17th and 18th centuries to the present day. Flowers were also popular as accessories such as hair ornaments and corsages pinned to dresses and gowns, and technological advances during the 19th century meant that the use of artificial flowers became widespread. This was especially the case for weddings where orange blossoms made of wax were a common alternative to the real thing.
Global trade and exposure also meant that materials could be sourced from abroad, whether it was new materials or as a way to top up or replace European stock. This was particularly true with fur and feathers: for instance the North American beaver was highly sought after the decline in numbers of the same animal in Europe. Exotic birds from the Americas, Asia and Africa also provided the feathers used to trim hats, fans, gowns and coats, which unsurprisingly led to issues around the environment cost and questions about the ethics of such a trade to satisfy demand for more and more fur and feathers in the name of fashion.
This brings me to the one major issue I have with this exhibition. While it was relevant to highlight the cost of fashion to the environment and wildlife, it is tackled in a heavy handed and patronising way. The sections dealing with how industrialisation and growing demand led to greater awareness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is treated in a much more backhanded manner with the implication that industrialisation was a bad thing over all. However those that deal with the present can’t resist beating the visitors over the head with shrill pronouncements about fast fashion being bad for the environment and workers’ rights in the developing world. I detect a sense of snobbery here as the exhibition’s interpretation puts the blame on the poor and those who cannot afford designer and sustainable fashion for any current environmental problems the planet is facing thanks to the rise of disposable fashion.
Overall the exhibition has a lot of offer in terms of content and information however I wish there was more about the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), as they demonstrated how patient campaigning, royal patronage and generating awareness led to the egret’s numbers recovering after they were hunted to near extinction for their feathers. What was the big let-down in the end was the exhibition failing to ask and explore that all important question – shouldn’t the fashion industry and its allied sectors put its own house in order first before presuming to lecture the public on the negative impact of fashion on the environment?
As we continue to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 which gave women over 30 the right to vote, the Palace of Westminster has decided to mount its own exhibition about the tumultuous road that led to female suffrage. Westminster’s offering however goes one step further as the exhibition also delves into the 90 years since women were able to vote on equal terms with men and the 99 years since the first woman took her seat as a Member of Parliament.
Entitled Voice and Vote, the exhibition charts the history of the history of female suffrage and female participation in a chronological manner. Before the 19th century, not only were women barred from voting, they were even forbidden from entering the Houses of Parliament. After the Napoleonic Wars, a group of women managed to find a way to enter the building, watch and listen to the debates from the ventilator; this also coincided with calls for social reform and women were at the forefront of many of these campaigns which ranged from prison reform, abolition of slavery, improvement of working conditions among others.
When the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt following the 1834 fire, a Ladies’ Gallery was added so that women especially female relations of MPs could watch and follow the debates. However, heavy metal grilles were placed over the windows which obstructed the view and made the gallery hot and uncomfortable. One woman likened the Ladies’ Gallery to an eastern harem where women were literally shut up, out of sight out of mind; and eventually it became known as the “Cage” and yet another symbol of women’s lack of political and social rights.
The next two sections dealt with the struggle for women’s suffrage and while there was too much emphasis on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes on what should have been a more balanced view that included the suffragists (many of them men), it was fitting that this exhibition highlighted the stunt pulled by the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) where one of their members chained herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery, not only to submit a petition to grant women the right to vote but also to point out the hated symbolism behind the grille.
Women over 30 were finally given the right to vote in 1918 and the following year saw the election of Nancy Astor to Parliament. She was quickly allocated a space which proved to be inadequate as more women were elected as MPs and yet again highlighted that Parliament was still very much a male dominated institution. Despite the fact that women could stand for the Commons, the House of Lords was still barred to them and Viscountess Rhondda, who had inherited her father’s title, led the campaign to open the upper house to women. This was finally realised with the Life Peerages Act in 1958 while female hereditaries could take their seat from 1963.
The exhibition was on display at St Stephen’s Hall and given that the hall was undergoing repair and conservation work might account for the small space allocated – which is a shame as I believe that using the whole area would have demonstrated what major strides women had made in public life and cementing their place in history. It may be slightly fanciful to suggest that the exhibition, by being shoved into a corner of a great public building, is symbolic in itself of the fight that women had and in many ways still do have to be taken seriously in the wider public sphere – it’s impossible to imagine new male MPs being designated as ‘Blair’s Babes’ or ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ in the trivialising and patronising way that female MPs have been. Despite the small space however they were able to recreate what it would have been like peering through the ventilator or the Ladies’ Gallery; and objects from the Parliamentary Archives and loans from other collections were able to bring to life key events in the struggle for the right to vote and participate in political life.
At present, women have occupied many of the highest political positions from being Speaker of the House of Commons to the Premiership. One leaves the exhibition thinking that women have come a long way but more needs to be done. A journalist once remarked that women would have true equality with men when they didn’t have to be at least as twice as good as men in any job to be taken seriously, and the rise to positions of power and influence of mediocre and untalented women was as taken for granted and unquestioned as that of their mediocre and untalented male counterparts. Looking around the current crop of female politicians perhaps women have achieved that true equality: no-one is really remarkable and some are outright mediocre or nonentities. No different to the vast majority of men after all.
The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 1 September 2018. Photos were taken by blogger
Fashioned from Nature is currently on at the V&A (London) until 27 January 2019. For more information, please visit this link: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/fashioned-from-nature
Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament is on at Westminster Hall (Palace of Westminster) until 6 October 2018. For more information, please visit: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/