Wandering into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest Costume Institute exhibition, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” is like entering a celestial cathedral: a white gown stands at the center like a spire, its 20-foot gold-painted and embroidered train digitally projected on the domed ceiling.
Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” fills the central gallery like an hypnotic hymn to haute couture, spilling out into the exhibition’s surrounding niches and alcoves.
The gown is a 2014 wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and, as one of the pieces that inspired the exhibition theme, is a consummate collaboration between manus (“hand”), and machina (“machine”).
In fashion, we’ve long associated the handmade with custom-fitted haute couture from Paris, elevating it above its prêt-à-porter counterparts. If couture is high art, “ready-to-wear” is simply clothing, mass-produced by machines in a factory—or so we’ve been told.
But Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, has set out to prove that “manus” was never necessarily superior to “machina” in fashion—and that they’re complimenting each other now more than ever before.
At this year’s Met Gala, celebrities massed on the red carpet in their various, and sometimes controversial, interpretations of the exhibition’s oppositional theme.
In his introductory text, Bolton writes that the exhibition theme “suggests a spectrum or continuum of practice, whereby the hand and the machine are equal and mutual protagonists in solving design problems, enhancing design practices, and, ultimately, advancing the future of fashion.”
That message resonates in more than 170 designer pieces featured throughout the two-floored exhibition, which is grouped by métier: dresses and ensembles featuring embroidery, artificial flowers, and featherwork are elevated beneath domes surrounding the main room on the first floor, while the lower floor is devoted to pleating, lacework, and leatherwork.
Each costume in the exhibit, from an 1870 Irish hand-crocheted wedding dress with three-dimensional floral motifs to a 2012 Iris van Herpen 3-D printed polymer-and-resin dress sculpture, is accompanied by wall text explaining exactly how each piece was made. Several videos show artisans at work, laboring over their masterpieces.
Beyond the extraordinary technology used in the process of crafting and constructing these designs, the exhibit is pared down and restrained, with white scrim serving as a backdrop for the clothes.
Designs are grouped by color in addition to métier, which prevents the magnificently decorative pieces on display from being too visually exhausting.
One finds that many of the showstoppers are from contemporary ready-to-wear collections, like a silver-metallic, mermaid evening gown from Alexander McQueen designer Sarah Burton (2012).
Another dress from the same collection looks as though it is made entirely from coral, proving that ready-to-wear often incorporates remarkably complex handwork.
Indeed, a quote from Burton explains that all of the “finale” pieces from her Spring/Summer 2012 collection were “done by hand—the embroidery, the cutting and fraying…It took days and days to finish. I lost track of the hours.”
Other highlights include Yves Saint Laurent’s 1983 “sardine” dress from the designer’s haute couture collection.
Hand-embroidered with surface embellishments like black and pewter beads and gray, brown, silver, and opalescent paillettes, this process alone required 1,500 hours of work.
Similarly, a 2005-2006 Chanel haute couture wedding ensemble was made entirely by hand and designed to look like “a giant bouquet,” according to Lagerfeld. The dress was embellished with 2,500 white flowers, each of which took 90 minutes to make.
Elsewhere, we see two Gareth Pugh ready-to-wear dresses hand-embroidered with plastic drinking straws, cut to resemble “feathers.” Each dress flanks an entrance to a side gallery on the main floor, hovering overhead like organ pipes in Bolton’s cathedral.
The designs themselves are breathtaking, though that has certainly been true in years past. What makes “Manus x Machina” particularly extraordinary is the show’s execution as a beautiful tutorial that showcases exactly how the pieces were made.
If Eno’s music and the exhibition’s quasi-spiritual atmosphere give us pause, the reverence devoted to fashion métiers encourages us to truly appreciate the effort and innovation behind the finished products.