Podcast Ep. 44, V&A CURATOR EDWINA ERHMAN ON 'FASHIONED FROM NATURE'
EPISODE 44 FEATURES MUSEUM CURATOR EDWINA ERHMAN
Edwina Ehrman is a senior exhibition curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, specialising in 19th Century fashion and textiles and the history of London fashion. As Lead Curator for the V&A's Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, she played a key role in developing a custom-built storage system for the museum's collection of over 100,000 textiles. And you thought you had too many clothes...
FASHIONED FROM NATURE is on at the V&A now until 27 January 2019. Here's the official description: "From stunning botanical embroidery to earrings made from birds of paradise, the relationship between nature and fashion is complex and often controversial. This exhibition will take you on a journey through centuries of fashion that have drawn inspiration from, and plundered the natural world – through to the contemporary innovators who are directly addressing the issues caused by the industry."
The ideas raised here start from what is fashionable - looking at how for centuries nature has inspired fashion - you know, florals for spring! - but there is or course another side, and it’s the fact that so often, if not always, making these clothes, textiles and accessories involves exploiting nature.
Everyone’s talking about the 1860s muslin dress embroidered with Indian beetle wings and the creepy bird-head earrings. Indeed, there are items on show at the V&A that to modern eyes are really macabre: so many beavers were killed for their fur which was used for hat felt that the industry pretty much obliterated them from Europe. There was a craze for trimming hats with starlings and making capes from swansdown. There’s a monkey fur cape on show (that was a 1920s thing, yuk) and a muff made from albatross wings, ugh… Before the synthetic alternatives were developed, tortoiseshell was actually that.
At the time, these things were considered gorgeous and exotic and fabulous.The human-made materials are now use seem more benign, but are they? You are no doubt familiar with stories about just how polluting the modern textiles industry can be...
You don’t have to see the exhibition to think about these issues, to see how they play out in history and in our present, and to ask yourself, how do I want stand in Nature? What do I believe Nature is for? Am I part of it? If so, how can I knowingly damage it for something - beautiful clothes - that’s a mere luxury? What can we do to lessen fashion’s negative impacts on Nature, or better still, to make those impacts positive?
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT...
Archive access. You can find out about visiting the V&A's Clothworks Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion here.
PROTEST FASHION. Edwina's "protest island" features the work of British heroes including Katharine Hamnett's ‘Clean Up or Die’ leather ensemble from 1989; Bridget Harvey's 'Less is More' jumper; and this outfit from Vivienne Westwood's iconic Climate Revolution collection.
EMMA WATSON wrote the foreword for the book of the exhibition. Here's one for the quote book:
“Regardless of our social or economic status, we can all dress and shop more mindfully and sustainably. It is so important & timely that we now re-conceptualise what it means to wear and consume, and what is fashionable.” - emma Watson
Emma's Calvin Klein x EcoAge dress from the 2016 Met Gala appears in the exhibition. "Every aspect of the dress was considered form the zippers to the lace," explains Edwina Ehrman. "What it's best known for now is that it's made from fabric that uses recycled PET bottles...but it was also made in three separate parts for increased wearability."
Of course Emma was our Vogue Australia cover girl earlier this year:
Clothing durability, design longevity, re-wear and celebrity culture.
"Although many assume it’s simple to re-wear something on the red carpet, in reality, stars usually borrow their finery, so it can prove challenging for either a stylist or a label to track down a piece and refit it in time to get a celebrity ready for an event. For designers, it’s much simpler to create a new piece for a star to wear. It’s a pattern stylists like Blanchett’s own Elizabeth Stewart are hoping to change. “I think the stigma around re-wearing a dress is arbitrary . . . it’s a rule that will fade away like ’no white after Labor Day,’ ” Stewart says. “We don’t visit the Louvre expecting a new masterpiece each time. True beauty and art endure. I cannot support the waste of perpetuating a ’one-time only’ rule for a beautiful gown, and thought this was a great forum to demonstrate that. ” Read Maria Ward's US VOGUE piece about celebs re-wearing their red carpet looks in full here.
CLASSIC FABRICS. Cotton grows on a plant. You heard it here first. Flax, also known as common flax or linseed, is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. It's both a food and a fibre crop, and is cultivated in cooler regions of the world. Linen is what we call cloth woven from flax. So now you know. Oh, and silk starts out as a worm...
FUTURE FABRICS. Leather alternatives made from grape skins to Stella McCartney embracing spider silk made by Bolt Threads, there's so much innovation going on. Edwina mentions
There's a Victorian top hat in the show that's so toxic you MUST NOT TOUCH IT, even after all these years. Dating from the 1870s, it's made from beaver felt and, says Edwina, "is still dangerous today". That's thanks to the mercuric nitrate that was then commonly used in the felting process. "Of course the people who were mainly effected by it were the makers." Chronic occupational exposure to mercury includes mental confusion, emotional disturbances, and muscular weakness. Neurological damage and kidney damage could also occur. Fans of Alice in Wonderland, WHO KNEW THAT THIS WAS WHY LEWIS CARROLL MADE HIS HATTER CHARACTER "MAD"?
"WHAT IS THE HATTER WITH ME?!"
There's even a theory that Lewis Carroll himself was affected by mercury poisoning, as explored by this book by Mary Hammond.
MORE POISONOUS FASHION...
"ON THE MORNING of March 11, 1933, Western Union delivered a telegram from Wilmington, Delaware, to Dr. Alice Hamilton at the Harvard Medical School that began, 'RAYON FACTORY HAVING EPIDEMIC OF MENTAL CASES,' and ended, 'PLEASE ANSWER QUICKLY.' Alice Hamilton was a leading US authority on the toxicity of carbon disulfide, the compound that appeared to be causing the rayon illnesses. Back in 1915, as a medical expert working with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, she had studied its use in the rubber industry—though even then it was falling out of favor, in part because of its well-recognized dangers. Hamilton had inspected nine rubber factories for the bureau. Of 16 cases of mental illness she tallied, one worker had been briefly committed to an insane asylum and several others had experienced other nervous system complaints." This is an extract from Paul David Blanc's book, Fake Silk: the Lethal History of Viscose Rayon. Find out more here
"I THINK SAYING SUSTAINABILITY IS THE NEW LUXURY IS INCREDIBLY ELITIST & I FIND THAT VERY OFFENSIVE. SUSTAINABILITY SHOULD BE FOR EVERYBODY. EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE GOOD, WELL-DESIGNED CLOTHES THAT DON'T DAMAGE THE PLANET AND DON'T BRING HARM & DISTRESS TO THOSE WHO MAKE THEM." - EDWINA EHRMAN
A note on our MUSIC: it is by our friend Montaigne, who sang a special acoustic version of "Because I love You" just for us. It's from her album Glorious Heights.
THANK YOU FOR JOINING THE WARDROBE CRISIS CONVERSATION. WE'LL HAVE A NEW EPISODE FOR YOU EVERY WEDNESDAY. CAN YOU HELP US SPREAD THE WORD? WE'D LOVE YOU TO TELL YOUR FRIENDS & LEAVE A REVIEW IN iTUNES.
Until next time,
WHAT THE PAPERS SAY...
From hummingbird hats to oat-plant couture, an exhibition at London’s V&A depicts fashion as a double-edged sword: "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." - WALL STREET JOURNAL. Read Susan Delson's story here.
"The first time an exhibition has looked at sustainable fashion in a properly historical context." - iD
"Fashioned from Nature shows the real cost of high fashion. The exhibition looks at the way designers have been inspired by nature — but also helped to destroy it. It’s a cumbersome brief, not to mention exhibition title. But then the relationship between fashion and nature has always been complicated, like the worst love affair. On the one hand [it] celebrates an obsession that began, perforce, when man first garbed himself with objets trouvés from the world around him. On the other, it details how that world has been damaged by our insatiable sartorial appetites; by not just our simple need to dress ourselves, but by our carnivorous notions as to how to do so as extravagantly, as unnaturally, as possible." - UK TIMES
"It’s laden with conversation starters: a hat trimmed with starling feathers from 1885 is presented alongside the news that the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds was formed just a few years later. The result is a foreboding sense that this exhibition is not to make you feel guilty about your fashion choices but to acknowledge the ways in which society has long tried to better them." - EVENING STANDARD