Harper's Bazaar June 2018 - Page 117

L ast year, it was announced that the only known surviving fragment of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe had been discovered. The intricately embroidered skirt, sewn with gold thread, had been made into an altar cloth and lay undisturbed for centuries in a quiet Herefordshire church. Covered in roses, daffodils, and a menagerie of animals, insects, and caterpillars, this exquisite relic is a testament to how nature was such an intrinsic part of life that even its humblest creatures were elevated into decorative symbols to adorn the costliest of royal fabric. Humans have always relied upon the environment for survival, but it is easy to forget that it is also the source of the clothes that we wear. In the past, this connection was acknowledged and even celebrated, but our increasing detachment from the natural world makes it harder to appreciate that the most luxurious pieces of couture are still made from the simplest of materials. This rich and unexpected history, from the early 17 th century to the present day, is the subject of a major new exhibition at the V&A. Fashioned from Nature charts the complex and ever- evolving relationship between our clothes and the environment. It reflects the inspiration that fashion has always drawn from flora and fauna, and the industry’s impact on nature, these two strands combining to reveal how our own attitudes have altered over the course of several hundred years. “Previously, people really understood where their clothes came from and valued that knowledge,” says the V&A curator Edwina Ehrman. “Even in my own childhood in the 1950s, your ‘best’ garments were cherished and cared for. They lasted for years—they would be mended and preserved and handed down. They were prized possessions.” The earliest garments in the exhibition date from the early 1600s and are perfect examples of how the wonders of nature were displayed through clothing. There are jackets and dress fragments embellished with flowers and twining vines, their details picked out with brightly-coloured silks, and silver and gold threads. For almost as long as patterned textiles have been produced, the natural world has provided ideas for their designs, and in the 17 th century these motifs held far more power and significance than they do today. Courtiers were well-versed in the language of flowers, and used these emblems to convey sentiment, from purity to political allegiance. Certain furs, such as ermine, were highly regarded and worn only by the nobility, while silk had a similar high status, due to the difficulty of obtaining it—the silkworms from whose cocoons it was made only thrived in certain climates and so the raw material had to be imported. These elaborately embroidered cloths were so expensive that they were not cut unless absolutely necessary. Instead, the dressmakers would fold and pleat them into shape, using running stitches so that their creations could easily be taken apart and reused for new items of clothing or ecclesiastical vestments. As the mania for exploration gathered pace and new trade routes opened up, fashions reflected the ever- changing map of the world. Ivory, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell became extremely sought after for hair accessories, buttons, and fans, and were often intricately carved by hand. Dyes were produced in ever-richer hues—the cochineal insect, for example, yielded the rich crimson used for soldiers’ red coats—while imported animal pelts, such as beaver- skins from North America, were prized for their useful qualities. By the 19 th century, Britain’s colonial expansion had reached a peak, and with it came a widespread interest in the horticulture and wildlife of these overseas nations. This desire to chronicle and catalogue was a particularly Victorian passion—Charlotte Brontë famously spent her honeymoon gathering and pressing ferns with her new husband, while generations of little boys robbed birds’ eggs from nests to add to their amateur collections. The fashions of the day mirrored this passionate ä (Opposite page) Woven silk train for an evening dress, France or Britain, c. 1897-1905 (This page) Cape of curled cockerel feathers, Auguste Champot, France, c. 1895 117