FIT Museum’s Force of Nature Strikes a Chord

Left: Alexander McQueen Spring 2009 “Natural dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection” collection; Right: Alexander McQueen 2010 “Plato’s Atlantis” collection
All photos Laurel Marcus – click images for full size views

A timely new exhibition which looks at the relationship between fashion and the natural world, has come to The Museum at FIT entitled Force of Nature (through November 18). I attended the press preview tour with curator Melissa Marra yesterday. “Science and nature are so important — I’d like to engage people to care more about it, especially with what’s happening today,” she said.

Curator Melissa Marra

Political fallout aside, I find the topic interesting from a design inspiration angle as flora and fauna have inspired designers from Charles James to Alessandro Michele with varied interpretations on this time honored theme. The exhibition traces the topics “roots” from the 18th century when Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) who was considered the father of ecology, tied the vast diversity of nature to an interconnected global force.

“Network of Nature” group

He would have wholeheartedly approved of the creativity shown today through fashion displayed here including Iris van Herpen’s one-of-a-kind Crystallization “water” dress, Alexander McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis collection dress, McQueen’s “scarlet macaw” dress (2003) and an example from Rick Owens Mastodon collection (fall 2016).

“The Botanic Garden” group

The exhibition is made up of display platforms organized by theme rather than strictly chronologically. These include “Botanic Garden,” “The Language of Flowers,” “Investigating Nature,” “The Science of Attraction,” “The Aviary,” “Metamorphosis,” “Into the Wild,” “Physical Forces,” and “Fashioning a Future.”

“Language of Flowers” group

The “Language of Flowers” section illustrates various examples of the Christian Dior quote “After women, flowers are the most lovely thing God has given the world.” The Charles James “Tree” evening dress (1955), Pierre Hardy stylized flower shoes (2015), Alexander McQueen’s orchid evening dress (2004), Christopher Kane’s plant reproduction diagram dress and a Comme des Garcons 3-D rose themed burgundy pantsuit all show the designer’s interpretation on the theme.

“The Science of Attraction” group

In “The Science of Attraction” section, George Darwin’s 1872 “Development of Dress” detailed how vestiges of organs in animals were still referenced in clothing such as tails on men’s dress coats. He also observed that although in nature men are the more colorful, showier species (think peacock), in humans, females were the more ornamental of the sexes. Conspicuous color is a way of getting attention as in bird plumage. The Gucci men’s rose embellished suit is here as well as examples of actual birds used in hats (more about that later), and a Halston sequin gown which would serve mimic the structural color and light which a hummingbird’s feathers give off in flight if worn while shimmying on the dance floor.

“The Aviary” group

“Feathers have always had an allure in the world of fashion,” Marra explained when we got to “The Aviary.” A Bill Cunningham cape and hat from the 1960’s captured the “cultural zeitgeist of the time.” Next to it is a feathered Balenciaga dress which is constantly in motion due to the lightness of the feathers, as well as a red Chanel feathered cape. McQueen was obsessed with birds and feathers as they symbolized freedom, Paul Poiret’s coat resembles a vulture or a bird of prey — “not for a timid woman,” added Marra.

“Metamorphosis” group

Metamorphosis was not originally scientifically understood — the concept is played with here in Charles James “Mermaid” dress actually known as the “Lobster” dress, his “Swan” dress and Thierry Mugler’s crustacean silver gown. A reproduction of the Antonio Lopez print “Metamorphosis of a Shoe” transforms the lobster dress into a shoe.

“Into the Wild” group

Next we go “Into the Wild,” and I do love me an animal print! “Animal prints are meant to camouflage in the wild but they stand out in fashion,” says Marra. Examples are from Rudi Gernreich, Carla Fernandez (fabulous cheetah print jumpsuit!) and Patrick Kelly who fittingly morphs a zebra print into a thumbprint because, as Marra points out, they are both equally unique.

“Physical Forces” group

“Physical Forces” is involved with the study of matter and gravity as evidenced by the 1920’s cape with descending comets by Yvonne May and the celestial inspired 1953 Saks Fifth Avenue cocktail dress. Space age fashion exploded here including a dress from Pierre Cardin and a tectonic plates collection (2015) from Mary Katrantzou.

Hat circa 1909, Berthe Tally hat circa 1901, Fan, circa 1898, France; Fan, circa 1915, France; Caroline Reboux ostrich plume bolero, Evening dress, circa 1902, USA

Here’s a section for the birds, literally. Sadly, an estimated five million birds were killed since 1886 for the hat industry according to the American Ornithologist Union. Bird preservation began in the 1930’s by using only feathers that could be farmed such as ostrich. By the 1900’s there was less use of actual animal skins, rather representations of feathers or snakeskin were used.

“Investigating Nature” group

A 1930’s alligator bag seen here is interesting — these reptiles are no longer on the endangered species list and there is a sustainable way to use alligator and snakeskin. A Valentino cheetah skin coat and a Gaultier faux example round out the mix. Author Rachel Carson, one of the first environmentalists, writing in the 1960’s, believes we are harming ourselves as much as we are harming the environment — her back to nature aesthetic informs the fashion here.

“Fashioning the Future” group

The last section “Fashioning the Future,” shows some of the strides being made in Bio-Design with fashion materials including an FIT student project on using Alginate (from Algae) as a fabric. A Speedo Fastskin suit imitates sharkskin with dermal identicals hence looking to nature to solve design problems. Designers who work with sustainable fabrics including viscose (made from wood pulp) such as Stella McCartney who used it in her 2017 Resort, and her owning company Kering are referenced. “We’re beginning to understand that we are a part of the natural world, and of the ecosystem,” said Marra.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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