Nature crafting fashion
The garden is not just the perfect habitat to cultivate flowers and plants. The fauna (animals and creatures in general) present in gardens has long excited the creativity of pattern designers and weavers, who often included butterflies and insects in their designs, recreating the gracious and diverse ecosystem found in natural environments.
Butterflies, bees and swallows were amongst the most popular animals woven in fabrics, printed on silks and depicted on textiles and in jewellery since ancient times. As the demand for these motifs grew, craftspeople had to adapt to the market and develop techniques to produce these intricate designs to the highest quality, often collaborating with illustrators and artists and then translating their work into three-dimensional motifs.
Bestiaries - illustrated books about animals and beasts - were very popular in medieval Europe. The fascination people had with the natural world led to the depiction of ‘fantastic beasts’ - not animals belonging strictly to the real world, but amazing creatures inspired by travels and literature. This is something that still holds true today, with many fashion designers stretching reality and using their imagination to find ‘fantastic beasts.’
Animals do not just appear as motifs in fashion history. Animal prints are probably the most common way to include references to the animal world on clothing, and through time techniques to simulate coats of different animals became more and more complex and precise.
During the early 1760s, Lyon in France was one of the best centres for printing silks with ermine-like motifs, while expensive real ermine - a term used to indicate the stoat in its white winter coat - was used for edging and stoles.
Leopard prints became popular in the late 18th century, and could be found printed or woven into beautiful brocade silks, often enmeshed with flowers and other decorative elements. Their variety grew considerably in the 20th century, especially from the 1930s onwards. In 1932, MGM released the blockbuster movie Tarzan, and that led to a surge in demand for leopard-print clothing inspired by the costumes worn in the movie. Leopard-print then entered the mainstream, worn by celebrities as Betty Page, Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones and designed by the likes of Azzedine Alaia, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce e Gabbana, whose motifs became so recognisable that their names became almost synonymous with variations of this style.
While it is quite well known that feathers have been widely used in fashion for decorating accessories such as hats and bags, colourful birds have also inspired prints and embroideries.
One of the most popular birds was the peacock, which flourished after 1858, when images of the Japanese green peacock arrived in Europe following the reopening of trade with Japan. Both the Japanese green peacock and the Indian blue peacock were highly regarded as what at the time would be described as ‘exotic’ symbols, and were popularised by textile manufacturers and stores, such as the London-based Liberty & Co, whose ‘Hera’ print - dedicated to the Greek goddess whose symbol was indeed the peacock - is still regarded as one of the most successful.
The sinuous lines and iridescent colours of peacock feathers were a feature of patterns produced by the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as being featured in Art Nouveau jewellery and accessories, such as necklaces, bracelets and fans.