You don’t have to be a fashionista, or even a botanical enthusiast, to have an enjoyable time at University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens, where the special exhibition Avant Garden—Weaving Fashion and Nature Together is on display through January 8th. After all, we’re kicking off another Polar Vortex winter, with temperatures dipping from the low to the excruciating, and baby, it’s warm inside. If holiday stress put you and your wallet at the limit, remember that the Matthaei Conservatory is free for all ages, and provides a peaceful environment to soak up some sunlight and lush flora during the barren months to come. 

Matt2"Willow Cage Skirt" with herbal flourishes, including basil and mint.
The style mavens among us might relish the chance to take in some fun floral-inspired fashions, constructed out of materials taken right from the conservatory’s collection and reconfigured into dress forms by Matthaei's events coordinator, Allison Correll. These thematic looks might not hold up through a black-tie event, but they do provide conservatory visitors an opportunity to reflect on the ways that plants inform fashion, from both a material and an inspirational perspective.

Some of these looks are seasonally appropriate, such as the “Holiday Greens Gown” constructed out of Western Cedar, Carolina Sapphire Cypress, and English Ivy, or a towering, Christmas tree-like train comprised entirely of white Poinsettias. Others, like the “Fern Gown,” evoke more of a jungle feel, with a Boston Fern skirt gilded with Christmas lights and topped with a Birch bark bodice. The “Bromeliad Dress” is the perfect number for a wilderness prom, with a sweetheart neckline and full skirt comprised of Spanish Moss, embellished with a tumbling corsage of assorted air plants. Neoregelia-turned-regalia! 

Matt5"Succulent Dress" and "Moss Suit" take in the rays in the desert conservatory.Out on a date in the desert room, a “Succulant Dress” confers with a “Moss Suit,” mirrored by a nearby human couple in quiet conversation. This is the most detailed construction of the show, and beautifully staged, with a series of glazed stoneware and ceramic pigment sculptures by Ann Arbor’s Susan Crowell strewn on the ground at the base of their pedestals. The sculptures interpret Agave pollen, rendered at 3,000 times its natural size. 

Matthai doubleTwo of the fairy dresses hidden in the conservatory.In addition to the fashion forms, which are situated along the main pathways of the conservatory, there are a number of points of interest to supplement the exhibition’s theme and delight visitors of all ages, including a fairy castle constructed from La Croix sparkling water cans and a handful of fairy dresses hanging like ornaments from the trees. A series of floral fabrics are mounted onto a wall of Creeping Fig, and showcase the myriad ways that plants and flowers have been used, historically and internationally, as fabric motifs.Matt4"Bromeliad Dress"

A supplementary exhibit, Nature by Design, runs concomitantly in the facility’s indoor area, and features local artists who have turned to nature as their muse to create art in a variety of media. 

Like each fashion season, these looks cannot remain evergreen, so take some time to check out this inventive presentation by Correll and the whole Matthaei Botanical crew, and make it your New Year’s resolution to soak up some of the peace and greenery as we head into another cold, cold winter!

All photos courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.

"Avant Garden—Weaving Fashion and Nature Together" runs through January 8th at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor. Free admission.

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