Fashion & Textile History Gallery
May 30 – November 18, 2017
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Explore the Force of Nature online exhibition and online resource for additional information about topics covered throughout the exhibition.
Force of Nature examines the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world. The exhibition reveals how nature has historically influenced fashion, and how fashion can serve as an indicator of society’s relationship with the natural world. In eighteenth century Europe, for example, nature became an object of renewed fascination as a result of overseas exploration. This fascination found expression in garments that featured depictions of exotic plants and animals.
Spanning the eighteenth century to the present, the exhibition is organized into ten sections, each focusing on a facet of fashion’s connection to nature. Garments, textiles, and accessories, exclusively from the collection of The Museum at FIT, illustrate how principles in the natural sciences, such as the dynamics of sexual attraction, have informed fashion design. Elaborately feathered women’s hats, for example, show how the plumage male birds use for sexual display has been appropriated to emphasize female beauty.
Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769- 1859), often considered the father of ecology, characterized the vast diversity of nature as an interconnected global force. He also believed that imagination was essential to experiencing and understanding nature. Therefore, Force of Nature begins with a series of garments that demonstrate this diversity and the creativity it inspires. Included are a mesmerizing “water” dress by Iris van Herpen that appears to splash away from the body and an ensemble by Rick Owens that was inspired by the mighty, prehistoric mastodon.
The bold patterns of animal skins have been appropriated by fashion designers for their strong visual impact and erotic appeal. However, these patterns are
often employed in a manner that contradicts their evolved purpose in the natural world. The striking patterns that serve to camouflage animals in the wild are often used in fashion as a way to stand out. The undeniable beauty of birds and the phenomenon of metamorphosis, the most radical form of change in nature, have also fueled the imagination of many fashion designers.
Nature was the subject of intense study during the nineteenth century, with everything from ocean life to microorganisms under examination. This led to the appropriation of natural objects as a form of adornment. Scientist and artist Ernst Haeckel illustrated his discoveries using the microscope in Art Forms in Nature (1899–1904), a book that influenced artists and designers. Nature’s geometric shapes and forms have continued to inspire designers such as Christian Dior and more recently the design trio ThreeASFOUR.
In 1863, Charles Baudelaire drew comparisons between fashion and the natural world, describing changes in fashion to be “as elaborately articulated as they are in the animal kingdom.” In an 1872 essay, Charles Darwin’s son George Darwin directly compared changes in dress to evolution by natural selection. Few principles of modern scientific thought have had as wide an impact as the theory of evolution, and fashion designers, in turn, have addressed evolution in their collections. Alexander McQueen’s spring 2009 collection Natural Dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection contemplated the notion of survival of the test, in addition to the “deleterious results of industrialization on the natural world.”
The natural world has influenced fashion in positive ways, but fashion’s impact on the environment has been largely detrimental. However, this relationship is changing, with many designers engaging in more sustainable practices. This shift indicates a new attitude toward nature, from one of dominion to participation. Science and technology play key roles in transforming this relationship, as evidenced by designer interest in biomimicry (employing design principles that imitate nature’s processes) and biomaterials that are grown using biological organisms. Force of Nature closes with an examination of this emerging dynamic, encouraging a vital discussion about future directions in fashion.
Force of Nature is made possible by the support of the Couture Council of the Museum at FIT.
Javier Alvarez, Animal Forensics Assistant, ASPCA (former Avian Collections Manager, Staten Island Zoo)
Daniel Grushkin, Program director of the Biodesign Challenge and co-founder of Genspace
Sarah Hezel, Director, Interpretation & Graphic Design, Wildlife Conservation Society
Suzanne Lee, Chief Creative Officer, Modern Meadow
Eleanor J. Sterling (PhD), Chief Conservation Scientist, Center for Biodiversity & Conservation, AMNH
Alexandra Wright (PhD), Assistant Professor of Ecology at Cal State LA (former Asst Professor of Biology at FIT)
Many thanks to MFIT staff who assisted with this exhibition and related web materials. Thank you also to interns Bethany Gingrich and Nelli Ayvazyan.