Past the galleries of Medieval art, with fairy tales narrated by the tapestries on their walls, and welcomed by a short glimpse of the most beautiful Chinese ceramics, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits the Costume Institute’s latest creation: Manus x Machina. The exhibition, which transformed the renown Lehman wing into the cupola of a Florentine Renaissance church, opens with the dress that inspired it. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld as the closing garment for his autumn/winter 2014-15 haute couture collection for Chanel, and made with synthetic diving-suit material, its surface soft as a whale’s skin, the dress extends about 6 metres backward, its train showcasing the most perfect intersection of manus and machina. The brocaded pattern was first hand-drawn by Lagerfeld, then pixelated with a computer aid. Rhinestones were inserted using a heat press, and the gold paint and pearls were embroidered by hand, taking the artisans no less than 450 hours of manual labor in the completion of this masterpiece. If the dress presents a pregnant figure, made specifically for the model who wore it down the catwalk a few years ago, it also presents the conception of the most recent creative vision of the curatorial genius that is Andrew Bolton, curator in chief of the Costume Institute.
A few months ago, when presenting his project, Bolton declared that the purpose of the exhibition was, more than surprising the public, to demystify the assumptions that mark the differences between the hand-made and the machine-made. The surprise element is almost a natural for the creative mind that came up with the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition, a few years ago, and last year’s highly acclaimed China Through the Looking Glass. The demystification of a way of thought, so common between fashionistas from all over the world, is however, a true challenge. Traditionally, the hand-made relates with the elite, with personality and exclusivity, always maintaining a certain nostalgia for the past, its luxurious and extravagant palaces, and dances. The machine-made, on the contrary, tends to be associated with technology and democratization, and has degraded not only to be associated with the ready-to-wear, but also with street fashion, always overlooked by the world of high fashion. Reality is, however, like Bolton and his team clearly show in their exhibition, that the relationship between the hand-made and the machine-made, between manus and machina, is not dichotomous; if, at any given time, there existed a clear separation between the two, this has become increasingly smaller and its divisions blurrier.
To demonstrate it, the exhibition presents four additional case studies around the extravagant dress that inaugurates it. Yves Saint-Laurent’s “white elephant”, designed for Dior in 1958, his own “sardine” dress from 1983, Karl Lagerfeld’s camellia brocaded wedding gown, designed for Chanel in 2005, and Raf Simon’s white muslin dress for Dior in 2014, are all clear examples that contradict the idea of a strict division between haute couture and machine-made. Mixing manual techniques—like the nearly 100 hours it takes to make each one of the camelias brocaded into the Chanel wedding gown—with machine finishes, these pieces complicate the dichotomy we tend to believe exists between manus and machina.
Beyond the case studies, Manus x Machina also reveals the ways in which the types of labor that once structured hand-made fashions have been adapted by technological advances of our age, and are used by a variety of contemporary designers. Using Diderot’s Encyclopedia of the Arts, Sciences and Crafts—the first to elevate fashion to a level of art/science when it was published in the second half of the 18th century—as a starting point, the exhibition is divided into seven crafts that form part of the creation of a dress: embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lace, leatherwork and tailoring/dressmaking.
On the first floor are the first three sections: We see, as examples for embroidery, Christian Dior’s autumn/winter 1949-50 classics, Juno and Venus, next to 2012 dresses by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. Not far away is Yves Saint Laurent’s bird of paradise feather dress, designed for his fall/winter 1969-70 haute couture collection, and the huge silicon bird, printed using 3D technology, which forms an incredible dress by Iris Van Herpen for her autumn/winter 2013-14 haute couture collection. Finally, in the gallery of artificial flowers, a sample of several tones of pink takes us, in the blink of an eye, from an 18th-century silhouette, typical from Marie-Antoinette’s court, to more modern floral gowns by Balmain and Chanel. On the lower level are the other categories, where Issey Miyake’s unfolding pleated dresses, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton’s laser-cut leather designs, and Iris Van Herpen’s laser-cut pleated dresses are but a few examples. A corset made into a dress, a variety of Chanel suits, whether made with tweed or 3D-printed with synthetic materials, and the entirely synthetic “Kaikoku” dress by Hussein Chalayan and Swarovski, which includes a variety of butterflies with intermittent lights, complement the exhibition.
With such an incredible demonstration of the creative talent of the greatest fashion designers and their use of the hand-made and the machine-made, the Costume Institute shows us how, contrary to common belief, the apparent dichotomy between these two, which differentiates haute couture from the ready-to-wear, is not as strict as it seems to be. And, if there is something to see in the exquisite sample of dresses presented in the exhibition, it is that technology, in fashion, can be used to enhance design practices, thus reducing the gap between manus and machina.
When introducing the exhibition, Andrew Bolton asserted that we need a new paradigm in fashion, one that is less polarising. And we need to de-accelerate its rhythm so that, at least us, fashion lovers, are able to appreciate the value of the clothes on themselves, their construction, the hands and the processes that create them. And this exhibition, despite being within a museum and perhaps not fully understood by the public that sees it, seems to at least fulfil this purpose. For there is no piece in the exhibition that is not worthy of attention, which doesn’t invite us to stop and observe, perhaps with more care and admiration than if it were one of the masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Matisse or Picasso, which are hung not too far away from them.
Photography taken by me on a visit to the exhibition.