Arzu Kaprol evening ensemble, Fall 2014, Turkey, gift of Arzu Kaprol.
(All Photos From “Force of Nature” at the Museum at FIT. Photos by Eileen Costa / © The Museum at FIT)
As the 2015 climate change accord dominates the headlines again today, a new exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), “Force of Nature,” considers how fashion and textile designers have plundered, mimicked, been influenced, and inspired by Mother Earth from the 18th century to the present. “My hope,” curator Melissa Marra-Alvarez tells Vogue Runway, “is that people see how nature informs design, and ways that we never could have expected that [that] might inform a new appreciation for the natural world and encourage people to care more about it, which is important especially today.”
In truth, achieving that goal will require visitors to actively engage me with the multimedia resources in the gallery—which is organized into 10 sections, including “The Language of Flowers,” “The Science of Attraction,” and “Into the Wild,” the last featuring animal prints—simply because it’s so easy to be seduced by the visuals. Among the objects on display are three Charles James designs, including his famous “lobster” dress; a feather cape by the late milliner turned photographer Bill Cunningham; ostrich pom-pom mules worthy of Marie Antoinette by Manolo Blahnik; a 1974 cheetah-trimmed Valentino couture coat donated by onetime Vogue editor Mary Russell; and more contemporary looks from the recent runways of Rick Owens, Christopher Kane, and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. One of the designers most represented in the exhibit is Alexander McQueen, whose fascination with birds is well-known. “Nature informed his world so much,” explains Marra-Alvarez. “He used it on a symbolic level, there are behavioral aspects of animals and organisms that he depicts, and he would also use them to convey his own anxieties—[it’s] just so layered.”
Trends are as changeable as the weather, and getting beyond the surface with fashion can be a challenge. As in nature, sartorial peacocking is meant to draw attention to the outward appearance, rather than substance. Contrary to many animals, like those who use camouflage as a means of survival, trendsetters use spots and splotches to draw attention to themselves. Too often, the desire to transform ourselves through clothing has come at the cost of natural resources; in the 19th and early 20th century, for example, millions of birds were sacrificed in the name of la mode, eventually prompting reform through laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Much work remains to be done in terms of protecting animals and the environment in relation to fashion production. A positive development, which is addressed briefly at the show’s conclusion, is a rising interest in “biomimicry”—such as swimwear that aspires to have attain a slick, sharklike speediness and suiting that repels water à le canard. This aping of function, rather than form, is a positive development that complements a growing interest in sustainability. It’s a shift, writes Marra-Alvarez, that “indicates a new attitude toward nature, from one of dominion to participation.” Let’s play.
The “Botanic Garden” platform
Alexander McQueen dress, The Horn of Plenty collection, Fall 2009, England, museum purchase
Pierre Hardy shoes, Summer 2015, France, gift of Pierre Hardy
Alexander McQueen evening dress, Pantheon as Lecum collection, Fall 2004, England, museum purchase
Left: Bill Cunningham pheasant feather cape and comb set, 1960s; right: Cristóbal Balenciaga silk chiffon and ostrich evening dress, 1967; gifts of Frederick Eberstadt (Cunningham) and Roxanne Lowit (Balenciaga)
Mme. Pauline hat, circa 1955, USA, gift of Mrs. Oto Grun
Valentino Couture, coat, 1974, Italy, gift of Mary Russell
Jean Paul Gaultier top and skirt, 1988 and 1987, France, museum purchase
21st-century garments, accessories, and textile swatches influenced by biomimicry