“Plastics are precious – they’re buried sunshine”

Disappearing dress at the London College of Fashion
A disappearing dress from the Wonderland project. Photo by Alex McGuire at the London College of Fashion.

I’m fascinated by the subtle science of polymers, and it’s a cause of regret to me that the most common manifestations of synthetic polymers are in the world of cheap, disposable plastics. The cheapness and ubiquity of plastics, and the problems caused when they’re carelessly thrown away, blind us to the utility and versatility of these marvellously mutable materials. But there’s something temporary about their cheapness; it’s a consequence of the fact that they’re made from oil, and as oil becomes scarcer and more expensive we’ll need to appreciate the intrinsic value of these materials much more.

These thoughts are highlighted by a remarkable project put together by the artist and fashion designer Helen Storey and my Sheffield friend and colleague, chemist Tony Ryan. At the centre of the project is an exhibition of exquisitely beautiful dresses, designed by Helen and made from fabrics handmade by textile designer Trish Belford. The essence of fashion is transience, and these dresses literally don’t last long; the textiles they are made from are water soluble and are dissolved during the exhibition in tanks of water. The process of dissolution has a beauty of its own, captured in this film by Pinny Grylls.

Another film, by the fashion photographer Nick Wright, reminds us of the basic principles underlying the thermodynamics of polymer dissolution. The exhibition will be moving to the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast in October, and you will be able to read more about it in that month’s edition of Vogue.