Natural Motifs in Art Nouveau and Christopher Kane’s “Ecosexual”

Nature is often romanticized as the antidote to our busy lives and man-made structures. The design movement called Art Nouveau exemplified the tendency to reflect nature as the subject matter in order to calm anxieties around urbanization, industrialization, and the lack of control felt over our lives. This vision of nature as healing was woven into Art Nouveau’s design values and motifs at the turn of the century in Europe (1900’s). We see similar themes of nature reflected in creation through fashion designers choosing the environment as the subject matter and means of production. Christopher Kane’s 2020 ready-to-wear collection titled “ecosexual” demonstrates this shared love of nature through natural motifs reminiscent of those that emerged during the Art Nouveau period in Europe.

The movement lasted from about 1890 to 1914, when the first world war began. It stemmed from Paris, but the ideas then permeated through Europe and took on multiple forms. Variations included the Vienna Secession in Austria, Scotland, Germany, England, and America. The central values stemmed from a response to what came before, as so many art and design movements do. At the time of its emergence, the design was mainly based on historicism, and as a result, the pioneers of Art Nouveau sought out fresh aesthetics that were not referential to the past.

Additionally, this movement broke down barriers between fine art and design, including furniture, architecture, textiles, as well as painting and sculpture under its umbrella. Emerging amidst growing collective anxiety about industrialization and the mechanization of urban life, Art Nouveau reflected those emotions by turning to imagery depicting nature. This includes motifs of plants, animals, and imagery of women, as the sexist yet not surprising association of women with the natural world. As was common for art and design at the time, orientalism played a role in the design, as creators often took inspiration from eastern cultures, particularly Japanese aesthetics and illustrations. The overarching design aesthetic consisted of curvilinear forms, expressive and fluid movement.

Harry Napper for Silver Studio, Printed Textile, 1898
Interior of Hotel Tassel in Belgium, 1892-93

Alphonse Mucha is possibly one of the most famous designers from this period, and his imagery is often the first thing that comes to mind when Art Nouveau is mentioned. As an illustrator, he made artworks and advertisements in his distinct style of curved designs, plants and flowers, and women. The women are often interacting somehow with the natural elements around them, as their hair curls throughout the pages and are intertwined in these otherworldly yet also very earthen scenes.

Alphonse Mucha, The Seasons, Lithograph, 1867

The way that Mucha depicted women is particularly interesting because of their dress. Flowing, light-colored fabrics that draped and fell naturally were embellished in places to give a more structured and purposeful feel. However, women in real life at the time dressed much differently. Clothing, in particular for upper-class women, was restrictive, more conservative, and often heavy. Regardless of the imaginative aspect of the garments, many clothing designers who emerged learned to valued the ideals and aesthetics of the movement.

The aforementioned merging of design mediums and fine art into one gave rise to design houses’ exploration of clothing as an art form that coincides with movement. House of Worth, Jacques Doucet, and Paul Poiret are notable designers of the time. House of Worth, started by Charles Worth in the mid-1800s, infused Art Nouveau ornamentation, patterns, and motifs, into their textiles. In particular, they used spiral scroll patterns to give the illusion of ironwork, which was abundant in the architectural design, and curvilinear leaves and flower patterns to show an appreciation for nature.

Jacques Doucet, or House of Doucet, also utilized organic forms in their textiles and embroidery. Their dresses were often adorned with appliques, embroidery, and ornamental beading. Using light, flowing silk fabrics, light colors, and natural motifs in their garments. Another notable designer of the period was Paul Poiret, whose dresses were precursors to the flapper silhouette and art deco styles that would become symbolic of the 1920s. His contribution to the movement was with motifs of peacocks, plants and flowers, and heavily embellished fabrics.

The 1960s then saw a revival of these aesthetics. This is particularly evident in the use of imagery inspired by Alphonse Mucha’s illustrations. The hippie movement in the ’60s drew from natural motifs, the curvilinear forms, and the imagery of women, especially when it came to the psychedelic poster illustrations. This resurgence of Art Nouveau aesthetics arose out of anxiety about climate change, which led many creatives to contemplate their relationship to nature and the unsustainable and overwhelming ways we are expected to live our lives. When compared side by side, it becomes apparent how the illustrations of Art Nouveau were an inspiration for designers in the 60’s.

Poster designed in the 1960’s // Poster by Alphonse Mucha designed in 1890’s

Similar to the 1890s and the 1960s, anxieties about our lives in relation to the environment and urbanization are very much relevant today. As we are experiencing changes in the patterns of nature around us due to our human impact on the earth, we are again seeing designers of all mediums searching for a connection to nature and a way to ease the anxieties. Christopher Kane’s 2020 ready-to-wear collection titled “ecosexual” is one prominent example of this, not only in the subject matter but in the specific design aesthetics that reference Art Nouveau as well as its psychedelic resurgence in the 1960s. This collection expressed Kane’s love of nature as well as the relationship between sex, sexuality and environmentalism and nature. Its exact definition is up for interpretation, but regardless, it is undoubtedly about the earth. Perhaps the most obvious instances of this in the collection are the photos of meadows and clouds in the sky that were turned into textiles as a direct translation of the earth onto clothes.

Kane also utilized Art Nouveau design motifs of curvilinear forms, flowers, and specific patterns and shapes drawn from nature. The curved forms and natural imagery show up throughout the silhouettes, graphic design elements, and fabric manipulation. However, a prominent example of this is the butterfly print found in a few of Kane’s designs. This print takes on multiple forms in different looks transforming the natural pattern of a butterfly’s wing into a high fashion textile. This is similar to how Paul Poiret and other designers played with a pattern of peacock feathers in textile and illustration. It also resembles stained glass, which was a prominent design feature of the period. 

As curves and movement are often connected to nature, it is clear that Kane is demonstrating his love of the earth. Additionally, his designs have a psychedelic nature to them which is not only reminiscent of Mucha’s illustrations but the bright colors and images of the earth harken back to the 1960’s revival illustrations.

Art Nouveau as a design movement rejected historicism in favor of natural motifs and an aesthetic focused design. The movement brought attention to the natural world when many felt like it was being forgotten and discarded in favor of industrialization and urbanization. Thus, Christopher Kane’s 2020 collection showcases similar values and a love of nature that highlights nature’s beauty and importance in our lives by calling back to this design language.