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Eco-Fashion: Going Green

Loretta Lawrence Keane, Vice President for Advancement and External Relations
Cheri Fein, Executive Director of Public and Media Relations, 212 217.4700 or press@fitnyc.edu

On View at The Museum at FIT in New York
May 26 through November 13, 2010

The Museum at FIT presents Eco-Fashion: Going Green, an exhibition exploring fashion’s relationship with the environment.

The Museum at FIT presents Eco-Fashion: Going Green, an exhibition exploring fashion’s relationship with the environment. Generally, “eco-fashion” refers to the work of designers who use, produce, and/or promote sustainable, ethical, and environmentally-conscious products. Although eco-fashion is one of contemporary fashion’s most compelling practices, fashion and the environment have had a longstanding, multifaceted, and complex connection that is rarely explored.

Featuring more than 100 garments, accessories, and textiles from the mid-18th century to the present, Eco-Fashion: Going Green will examine both positive and negative environmental practices over the past two centuries, providing historical context for today’s eco-fashion movement. The exhibition will emphasize how each stage of fashion production—from fiber to finished garment—has environmental consequences. As a counterpoint, the extensive range of contemporary examples in the exhibition will showcase the increasing commitment of both designers and consumers to meet these environmental challenges, in a conscious effort to minimize harmful impacts.

Eco-Fashion: Going Green will begin with some of the finest examples of sustainable fashion by current, cutting-edge labels, including Ciel, Bodkin, Edun, FIN, and NOIR. The approaches these brands take to social and environmental issues will act as lenses through which the exhibition will view the historical garments and their various effects on the environment.

Edun, evening gown, black and off-white organic Tunisian denim, 2007, USA, gift of Edun. FIN, marble print dress, organic bamboo satin, fall 2010, Norway, gift of Per Sivertsen of FIN. NOIR, multilayered evening gown, Illuminati II cotton and silver studded leather, fall 2010, Denmark, gift of Noir/In Darkness All Colors Agree.

The earliest object on display will be a silk brocade gown dated circa 1760. Eighteenth-century silk was painstakingly woven on hand looms, making it costly and complex to manufacture, and weavers were esteemed for their artisanal skills. As a result, silk garments incorporating handcraftsmanship were often cherished for their beauty and quality. Since garments with lasting value are integral to today’s eco-fashion movement, this 18th-century gown will act as a chronological starting point for the exhibition.

The garments and objects in Eco-Fashion: Going Green will reflect at least one of six major themes:

  • the repurposing and recycling of materials
  • material origins
  • textile dyeing and production
  • quality of craftsmanship
  • labor practices
  • the treatment of animals

The repurposing and recycling of textiles is sometimes considered the most innovative and responsible mode of eco-fashion. Historically, this concept has taken a number of forms. A dress dating circa 1840 was remade from an exquisite yellow, striped silk from the previous century. Although silks woven on efficient, steam-powered looms proliferated in the 19th century, this dress emphasizes that older, hand-woven fabrics remained valuable. A man’s suit made in 1960 from the reverse side of a paisley shawl will represent the continuation of repurposed textiles in the twentieth century. Highlighting the emphasis on recycling in the 1990s will be a Martin Margiela jacket assembled from multiple silk scarves, along with a Xuly-Bët dress that incorporates worn sweaters and pantyhose. Also on view will be a dress and jacket by Alabama Chanin, a contemporary fashion label that combines the reuse of materials and local production in its primarily handcrafted garments.

Xuly-Bët, dress and jacket ensemble, multicolor sweaters, brown wool plaid, red nylon, fall 1994, France, gift of Xuly-Bët. Day dress, green silk faille and green chenille, circa 1865, USA, museum purchase. New York Dress Institute, evening dress, red rayon with rhinestones and beads, 1940, USA, gift of Mrs. Harold E. Thompson.

Practices associated with the growth and manufacture of fibers— ranging from the use of pesticides to the non-biodegradable qualities of many synthetics— have some of fashion’s most environmentally destructive consequences. Although cotton is often viewed as a quintessentially “natural” fiber, its production has, in fact, often been especially damaging. The display of two dresses from circa 1820 will emphasize that cotton growing during this time drained soil of nutrients and depleted water supplies— environmental concerns magnified by the introduction of dangerous pesticides and chemical fertilizers in the 20th century. As issues pertaining to cotton production have increasingly come to light in recent years, the availability of organic cotton, grown without harmful pesticides or other chemicals, has expanded dramatically. Today, organic cotton is used to make everything from basic T-shirts to the dramatic, one-of-a-kind evening gown by the influential eco-label Edun, which will be on view.

Also on display will be an acid green, silk dress dating circa 1860, the color of which was most likely achieved by using a dye that contained arsenic. This dye presented serious health risks not only to its maker, but to its wearer as well. Furthermore, waste materials from dyeing processes have historically been one of the most conspicuous forms of pollution. Some dyeing techniques, like the discharge printing method employed in a charming 1950s day dress by Sophie of Saks, are especially harmful to the environment, requiring that the garment be piece-dyed and then bleached. Today, there are a number of sustainable alternatives to harmful dyeing practices. For instance, clothing on display by Katie Brierley, designer for Isoude, uses natural plant dyes and embraces the disappearing art of traditional hand-dyeing.

Some eco-designers and fashion industry experts cite quality craftsmanship, convertibility, and uniqueness as key to the creation of clothing with lasting value and emotional connectivity — effectively reacting against the “fast fashion” cycle. Eco-Fashion: Going Green will show that this point of view has historical roots as well. For example, a dress from circa 1889 by New York-based dressmaker Mrs. M. A. O’Connell will exemplify the rising significance of the “named designer” in contrast to the increase of mass-produced clothing. The importance of meticulously crafted, made-to-order garments of the 1950s, a decade sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age of Couture,” will be seen in a cocktail dress by famed Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga. Also on view will be contemporary clothing by Los Angeles-based designer Linda Loudermilk, whose luxury eco™, couture-quality garments are made primarily in the United States from sustainable materials.

The health and treatment of industry workers also play a key role in the historical roots of eco-fashion. In the United States, organizations like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) were established to ensure fair labor practices in the early 20th century. The exhibition will include a lavishly embellished evening dress from circa 1941 made by the New York Dress Institute, a successful partnership between local manufacturers and the garment workers’ union during World War II. Also on view will be work by contemporary designer Yeohlee, who, in addition to her efficient “no waste” cut and construction techniques, campaigns to keep garment manufacturing in New York, rather than shipping work overseas.

Even before the rise of animal rights activist groups, the use of fur, feathers, and animal skins in fashion was a subject of debate. Long used for warmth and protection, fur was increasingly viewed as a luxurious status symbol in the 19th century. A dressing gown from circa 1880 is trimmed with fur, an extravagant embellishment for an at-home garment. A “casual” raccoon fur coat, fashionable among young collegians in the 1920s, will be displayed next to an extravagant velvet opera cape bearing a lavish fur collar. A 1960s paper dress embellished with an ostrich plume collar demonstrates how these once-luxurious feathers became part of an increasingly “throwaway culture.” As even the use of leather is debated today, the inclusion of contemporary shoes by cruelty-free label Charmoné will prove to rival those made from animal materials.

Charmoné, Cezanne pump, tan and red microfiber faux leather,
2010, USA, gift of Lauren Carroll and Jodi Koskella of Charmoné.
  

Eco-Fashion: Going Green is organized by Jennifer Farley and Colleen Hill, along with Tiffany Webber. The exhibition will be on view from May 26, 2010 through November 13, 2010 in the Fashion and Textile History Gallery at The Museum at FIT.

The Fashion and Textile History Gallery presents biannual exhibitions examining aspects of the past 250 years of fashion. Exhibitions are curated exclusively from The Museum at FIT’s extensive collection. Support for this exhibition has been provided by the Couture Council.

A FASHION MUSEUM

The Museum at FIT is the only museum in New York City dedicated solely to the art of fashion. Best known for its innovative and award-winning exhibitions, which have been described by Roberta Smith in The New York Times as “ravishing,” the museum has a collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories dating from the 18th century to the present. Like other fashion museums, such as the Musée de la Mode, the Mode Museum, and the Museo de la Moda, The Museum at FIT collects, conserves, documents, exhibits, and interprets fashion. The museum’s mission is to advance knowledge of fashion through exhibitions, publications, and public programs. Visit www.fitnyc.edu/museum.

The museum is part of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a college of art and design, business and technology educating more than 10,000 students annually. FIT, a college of the State University of New York (SUNY), offers 44 majors leading to the AAS, BFA, BS, MA, and MPS degrees.

The Couture Council is a membership group of fashion enthusiasts that helps support the exhibitions and programs of The Museum at FIT. The Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion is given to a selected designer at a benefit luncheon every September. For information on the Couture Council, call 212 217.4532 or email couturecouncil@fitnyc.edu.  

MUSEUM HOURS

Tuesday-Friday–noon-8 pm; Saturday–10 am-5 pm Closed Sunday, Monday, and legal holidays. Admission is free.

All photographs by Eileen Costa, courtesy of The Museum at FIT, New York.

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