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A Sea of Inspiration: The Relationship Between Fashion and Our Oceans

The fashion industry has been heavily influenced by our oceans and its creatures since its inception. When Marcel Rochas introduced the Mermaid Gown in the 1930’s, we saw a domino effect of ocean-inspired silhouettes and high fashion pieces hit the runway, the red carpet and the everyday sidewalk.

But as an industry so captivated by our seas, what is being done to protect marine life and our planet?

Runway fashion’s love affair with ocean imagery

Before considering how the couture industry has affected our oceans, we must first understand the extent to which the industry draws inspiration from it. The runway’s obsession with ocean life goes much further than just mermaid gowns and pearlescent blue colourways.

Ocean treasures have always offered great vision for designers – from shells and pearls to creatures of the deep. In fact, many designers have centred entire runway shows around the sea and its offerings.

Versace’s spring/summer 2021 collection had marine motifs throughout, with models adorned in bejewelled, printed blazers and minidresses, with wet hair to embody the oceanic vision. This show was thought to be a homage to Gianni Versace’s spring/summer 1992 Trésor de la Mer collection, in which he used the ocean as his muse.

However, some designers have combined their romantic ocean visuals with real world consequences. Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2010 runway was titled “Plato’s Atlantis’, in reference to the Greek philosopher’s fictional sunken island.

McQueen’s models personified the evolutionary process of adaptation as he presented an apocalyptic vision of climate change. With ice caps melting, sea levels are rising and consequently our ocean life are having to adapt. Dresses and neckpieces mimicked gills whilst hairstyles closely resembled fins – all leaving the audience to consider how their consumption is affecting our environment.

But of course, these high fashion takes on ocean awareness are only the tip of the iceberg.

The environmental impact of the fashion industry

As many of our clothes are made from synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and fleece, with every wash we are contributing to the micro-pollution of our oceans. A study by Plymouth University found that each cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 microplastic fibres into the environment.

Every year a half a million tons of plastic microfibres are dumped into the ocean- this is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Just because microfibres are small, their impact should not be underestimated. They cannot be removed from our water systems, subsequently harming our marine life.

Moreover, textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water. The leftovers are often dumped into streams or rivers, making its way back to our oceans. The dyeing process for our clothes uses enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year – it is hard to believe that all of this left-over water is disposed of properly and therefore is having harmful impacts to the ocean and its inhabitants.

What is changing?

As a consequence of these terrifying statistics, some fashion brands and organisations are starting to make some changes. Brands such as Adidas, Girlfriend, Ocin, Patagonia and Stella McCartney are making pledges to use upcycled ocean plastic in their pieces. For most of these brands, they are also donating some profits back to ocean charities to help protect the fashion industry’s favourite muse.

However, it is evident that most of these brands can be classified as ‘high end’ – or at the very least, the products they release within these ocean-friendly collections have higher price points than usual. Whilst this is to be expected as brands will have to pay more to offer sustainable options, there is an argument to consider whether sustainable and ocean-friendly fabrics should be economically accessible for the masses. After all, all consumers should be able to get involved and play their part in protecting marine life.

There is a great sense of irony that the industry that benefits the most from exploiting our oceans and its visual appeal can also cause so much damage.

Nonetheless, fashion brands are making the correct steps to reduce their environmental impact and create a culture where upcycling is the norm. Sustainable options may be much more expensive, but is this the price that we must pay to save our oceans?

In order for brands, businesses, designers and consumers alike to enjoy the fashion industry’s representation of sea life and mythical creatures, they must first respect and campaign for the very things they take inspiration from.


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