Four years ago, when curator Edwina Ehrman started thinking about the Victoria & Albert Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Fashioned From Nature’, she envisaged exploring how fashion designers had been inspired by the natural world over time – how, for example, they incorporated floral motifs into their clothing. When she started working on the show more seriously, she had a realisation: ‘I thought, "I can’t do that – it’s no longer appropriate". It had to be [mainly] about the impact of the fashion industry on the environment.’

The result is a sweeping survey of the industry’s relationship with nature over the past 400 years, exploring both our fascination with and exploitation of animals, birds, plants and natural resources. It has the air of a campaign about it. ‘We’re asking two questions,’ Ehrman says. ‘What can we learn from the past? And how can we design a more sustainable future?’

The exhibition offers an indepth exploration of the relationship between fashion and nature since 1600

The first of these is addressed chronologically: outfits from the V&A’s historical collection are paired with materials such as raw wool and silk-worm cocoons, as well as photos of live animals (beavers next to a fur hat, for example) to reminder visitors of the origins of these items. Displays explore the use of products from endangered creatures, such as ivory, turtle shell, mother of pearl and whalebone. A soundscape of birdsong is slowly interwoven with the noise of humans seizing nature’s offerings – water wheels, looms, machetes – as the story shifts from the era of handmade and natural energy to industrialisation, fossil fuels and mass fashion.

The section spanning from 1600-1900, focused mainly on Britain, reveals that our relationship with nature has always been anthropocentric – from enclosing the countryside, to farming, taming and hunting animals, we have long viewed nature in utilitarian terms. During this time, imperialism and the expansion of trade brought new, exotic items into British wardrobes and demographic changes led to the scaling up of production. A single dress from the 1760s made with precious metals from Peru, dyes from the Caribbean, furs from North America and Russia and silk from Europe and Middle East, is a reminder that fashion was, even then, global.

The later years – the 20th century and beyond – show the growing environmental impact of the industry, and a greater awareness of the damage it was causing. While exciting manmade fabrics were introduced, many of these were made from toxic materials, petroleum and using harmful pesticides. Recently, designers have consciously highlighted environmental concerns – Alexander McQueen’s S/S 2010 show ‘Plato’s Atlantisreferenced the melting of the ice caps, while Giles Deacon’s 2016 ‘Fabergé’ silk georgette printed imperial gown, elevated bird’s eggs to the level of the revered gold and jewelled ones. Nearby, is a display of protest material from the 1970s onwards, and a film that depicts oil spills, deforestation and polluted rivers.

The protests shown here are relatively recent, but it’s clear throughout that our concerns about the environment are not new: we’ve always wreaked havoc on the natural world globally, and there have always been those who have sought to protect it. What is different today is the sheer scale on which the fashion industry operates, and our technological capabilities. This complexity, Ehrman argues, demands nuanced solutions: a thorough consideration of how and where an item and its materials are sourced, processed and distributed, rather than a simplistic division between natural as good and manmade as bad.

The last section looks to the future, with a series of proposals for a more sustainable future. Some demonstrate an interest in traditional ideas (materials such as flax and hemp and the aesthetic of mending) while others suggest more innovative solutions (materials that weave themselves and biodegradable outfits).

The exhibition falls at a fortuitous time. In the last year, a host of luxury, high street and sports brands have announced they will be operating from a more environmental and ethical standpoint:  American label Theory has launched a sustainable ‘Good Wool’ capsule collection, burgeoning Swiss-born label Germanier uses recycled fabrics to create dazzling couture-like creations, Adidas has started upcycling plastic waste to create sock-like trainers, and H&M has collaborated with Control Union on a digital service which allows brands to monitor every step of its supply chains. In the last six months too, houses including Gucci, DKNY, Versace and John Galliano have pledged to go fur-free.

Finally, a series of interactive displays suggest that it is us – everyday consumers – who can shape the industry through our choices and demands. As Ehrman says: ‘When people talk about sustainability being a modern luxury, I don’t like that – it has to become the norm.’