Nature crafting fashion
Amongst the most contentious ‘natural’ materials used by the fashion industry is fur, which has long been present in fashion items and considered one of the most expensive and precious elements, used both in full or in trims and details. In some cases, fur was used to line garments, making them items of extreme luxury and comfort.
Leather is, like fur, at the basis of some of the most lucrative parts of the fashion industry: bags and shoes. From crocodile to snakeskin, some of the most coveted and iconic pieces of high fashion use luxurious leathers.
In many cultures feathers are used symbolically, associated with religion and spirituality: in ancient Egypt, the ostrich feather was a symbol of truth, while feather headpieces are widely common in religious ceremonies in South America.
By 1600, different feathers started to be imported into Europe as a result of colonial conquest, because they were considered precious, and marketed as ‘exotic’: bird of paradise, parrot, and egret feathers were highly praised and priced. Feathers of some birds endemic to Western Europe, such as seabirds and grebes, were also used to decorate ladies’ headwear.
Gradually, from the mid-19th century onwards, hats adorned with rare feathers were no longer reserved only for the wealthy, thanks to large department stores offering a huge variety of hats to a wider clientele.
Hard-to-source materials excited the desire of many wealthy Europeans, who would gather precious items from travels and ask their dressmakers and tailors to include them in their clothes and accessories, no matter the cost or the cruelties inflicted in obtaining them. Items such as ivory and tortoiseshell were very popular between the 18th and 20th centuries, and are now present in many museum collections because of their historical relevance, but are not used by the fashion industry anymore, as today’s customer prefers less impactful and controversial alternatives.
A new field of study - biomimetics or biomimicry - sees scientists examining nature and borrowing elements of design to create new technologies and products. When applied to the fashion industry, the goal is to use biological processes and organisms in the production of new types of clothing that reconnect us with nature. Examples so far include swimsuits that recreate the properties of shark skin to enhance the wearer's movement and speed through water, and algae-based textiles that nourish the skin as they are worn. The field of nature-inspired innovation is evolving, using what we know about craft and heritage with new tools and technologies to imagine a more sustainable and natural future.