The Met's Manus x Machina Dispels Traditional Fashion Orthodoxy

The exhibition brings together over 170 diverse garments and shows that technology and the hand-made have always coexisted.

"Flying Saucer" dress by Issey Miyake (1994). (Photo: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In fashion, there’s a nostalgic gravitation toward the handmade. Human fingers touching fabric and sculpting forms is difficult to separate from the very idea of couture. With its spring 2016 exhibition, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” (through Aug. 14), the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute dismisses the sovereignty of the handmade, offering a more complicated view of fashion and the future.

At one point in history, the sewing machine was the height of tailoring technology, a spot occupied today by the likes of 3-D printers and precise laser cutters. Despite the fundamental differences between manus (hand) and machina (machine), the two are not mutually exclusive, and no longer do they determine whether a garment is pret-a-porter or couture—a distinction again traceable to the invention of the sewing machine and mass-made clothing in the nineteenth century.

Three dresses showing off different embroidery techniques. (Photo: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The showcase includes more than 170 pieces of haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing dating back to the early 1900s and illustrates the relationship between hand-crafted and machine-made garments. Its organization mimics that of the Encyclopédie, a 18th century French tome that covers topics from philosophy to medicine to fashion. The book breaks dressmaking down into individual metiers, or crafts: embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, and leatherwork. At once, the layout illustrates the assiduous know-how involved in dressmaking and shows the interlacing of countless techniques required to produce spectacular garments.

Pieces shown are case studies in both the trajectory of fashion and techniques themselves. A trifecta of black sequined gowns are grouped together, showing off three different takes on a technique. Hussein Chalayan’s 2007 machine-sewn Mechanical Dress mimics the shape of a 1947 Bar Suit from Dior. A hand-pleated 1930s gown by Mariano Fortuny offsets a machine-pleated-and-sewn dress by Issey Miyake from 1990. And, the highlight, Chanel’s Wedding Ensemble (2014-2015 haute couture), designed by Karl Lagerfeld, shows off its dramatically-long train, where manus and machina intersect: Lagerfeld’s hand-drawn then digitally-manipulated design was crafted onto the machine-sewn scuba knit train in three ateliers to achieve its pixelated baroque pattern.

Ultimately, the exhibition guides visitors to a more sympathetic view of the relationship between man and machine when it comes to shaping fashion. As creativity pushes at the boundaries of what we can do, technology, like our hands, is yet another valuable tool for brining creations from our minds into the world.

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