An interesting zoo of peculiarities has been set up at the Museum of Costume and Fashion, in Florence’s Pitti Palace. At the Animalia Fashion exhibition, bejeweled insects are trapped in Plexiglas handbags, herbariums and cabinets host detailed plant drawings next to preserved butterflies and golden caterpillar coat pins. Taxidermy fish and parrots pose behind colorful, feathered frocks and scaled dresses. Hedgehog hats and butterfly skirts, coral sandals and shell corsets, the connotations are endless. A total of eighteen rooms are filled with this beautiful juxtaposition of contemporary fashion items created between 2000 and 2018, sharing the spotlight with the zoological inspiration behind them. Animalia Fashion is a surprising and evocative installation where natural history museum meets fashion forward showroom.
Clothing, accessories, shoes and jewels by fashion houses such as Margiela, Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Balmain, Chopard, or Mary Katrantzou engage in an ongoing conversation with real stuffed animals and snakes in formaldehyde from Florence's Museo di Storia Naturale La Specola, showcases with spiders from the Associazione Italiana di Aracnologia, old master paintings and exhibits borrowed from the Museo di Antropologia ed Etnografia di Firenze and reproductions of drawings taken from old bestiaries and pages of the medieval Tacuina Sanitatis. Opening with a section devoted to spiders, the exhibition guides us through swans, shells, hedgehogs, fish, coral, parrots, lobsters, babirusa, porcupinefish, snakes, beetles, flies, bees and crocodiles, to end up with butterflies, creating a bestiary vestiaire that confronts us with the true, raw architecture behind nature.
This is a curation carefully set up to evoke thought: Art, in its purest form, is a means to understand and become familiar with what we want to know more of, in order to subconsciously either identify with or reject it. Fashion is art. And it is so personal, that it “apes nature” first and foremost, before anything else. Try to steer your mind away from leopard prints and zebra stripes that only photocopy nature’s ingenious designs, or even fluffy boas that simply imitate the decorative purpose of feathers. Prehistoric men did not cover their bodies in lion’s manes for the sole purpose of keeping warm. They needed, in a mystical sense, to gain kinship to the animal’s nature, its power and fearlessness. As we grew out of the forest and into the cities, our aesthetics flourished, and our understanding of the living world around us became one of our many conquests. The lion’s mane has now been replaced by subtractive depictions of nature’s patterns and technology has re-examined our realm of power within the animal kingdom. But we are still fantastic beasts with animal instincts and fashion still has the power to involve us in a new game of identification with our habitat.
The exhibition, albeit entertaining and poetic, manages at the same time to sound an alarm at a time when climate change together with our gradually decreased interest in environmental issues are, in the end, actually threatening the existence of countless species. Art can pose serious questions, and haute couture might, ultimately, have the power to offer nature much more than it has received in return: Truly identifying with our cosmos and the living beings we share it with can today become a fundamentally political act.