Andrew Bolton’s ingenious new exhibition Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (Met) Costume Institute opened to much fanfare earlier this spring. Barring the deluge of celebrity sightings — who could forget Claire Danes’ Cinderella-esque light-up gown? — during the Met Gala, the true stars on show were the exquisite sartorial ensembles themselves. In this Spring 2016 exhibition, the traditional delineation between haute couture and prêt-à-porter is dissolved. Exploring the dichotomy of the hand (manus) and the machine (machina), the exhibition debunks the implicit assumption of the former’s triumph over the latter, reconciling the handmade and the machine-made.
1. Wedding Ensemble, Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Autumn/Winter 2014-15 haute couture, back view; Courtesy of Chanel Patrimoine Collection
The irrefutable centre piece of the entire exhibition, the wedding ensemble’s front reveals a structured V-shaped collar, accentuating a medallion hand embroidered with glass, paillettes and gold leather leaf motifs. Yet, for all its plaudits, the anterior is a mere prelude to its back: the resplendent 6m long train of scuba knit and silk satin effortlessly steals the show. A medley of rhinestones, gold, pearls and gemstones, the machine-sewn and hand-finished train bears Lagerfeld’s hand-drawn design, which was digitally altered to give it the veneer of a randomised pixelated baroque pattern. Befitting royalty, this elegant Regency-esque gown is all but missing a sceptre and crown.
2. Evening dress, Yves Saint Laurent, Autumn/Winter 1969-70 haute couture; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, 1983 (1983.619.1a,b)
An adroit composition of filmy silk and feathers, the dexterous manipulation of the structural flares of the evening dress makes it both a visual and tactile marvel to behold. The gown is machine-sewn and hand-finished with nude silk gauze, underscoring the melange of hand-glued white, black and brown bird-of-paradise feathers. The diaphanous and gossamer-like textured garment juxtaposes the evanescence of beauty with the tangibility of costuming. This flamboyant concoction of sheer plumages exhibits theatricality with great panache.
3. Dress, Iris Van Herpen, Autumn/Winter 2013-14 haute couture; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2015 (2016.14)
Haute couture and the avant-garde coalesce into Herpen’s bird dress: created with hand-stitched strips of laser-cut nude silicone feathers, dragon-skin and white cotton twill, this startling dress is revealed to have incorporated silicone-coated gull skulls with glass eyes in its very design. Inspired by the wilderness of people, the three birds fighting for liberation symbolise our surreal relationship with nature. The unique dragon-skin feathers vibrate in all directions when the dress is worn, creating a strange optical illusion of the birds in motion. Intellectually stimulating just as it is visually, this embodiment of sinful iniquity is the perfect conversation starter at any costume party.
4. Ensemble, Iris Van Herpen, Spring/Summer 2010 haute couture; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2015 (2016.16a,b)
Debuted as Herpen’s first 3D-printed sartorial creation, this ensemble was made in collaboration with London-based architect Daniel Widrig, blurring the once firmly-delineated boundaries between fashion and technology. The dualistic piece features 3D-printed (SLS) white polyamide and machine-sewn white goat leather vis-à-vis hand-cut acrylic fringe. Inspired by the lithification process of limestone, the objet d’art highlights the revolutionary triumphs made possible by 3D printing: with up to ten lines in each millimetre of the print, the designer claims it to be “as detailed as your fingerprint”. A beautiful synthesis of contours and angles, the piece foregrounds the delicate application of technical prowess to the sculpturing of organic forms.
5. Ensemble, Raf Simons for House of Dior, Spring/Summer 2015 haute couture; Courtesy of Christian Dior Haute Couture
Reminiscent of the material culture that pervaded the 1950s with its wasp waists, petticoats and full skirts, Simons’ delicate couture piece harks back to the golden era of romanticism. Fusing hand-pleated, machine-sewn white silk organdie with interspersed hand-embroidered silk grosgrain ribbons, the dramatically full pleated polychromatic skirt is complemented by its solid mono colour block top. Injecting femininity with an irrepressible sense of fun, the ensemble’s manifold ruffled ribbons and bursts of colour conjure up promises of cocktail parties and daydreams of summer-time.
6. “Flying Saucer” Dress, Issey Miyake for Miyake Design Studio, Spring/Summer 1994 prêt-à-porter; Courtesy of The Miyake Issey Foundation
Imbuing whimsical fun into his sartorial designing decisions, Miyake’s “Flying Saucer” dress answers his self-invoked question: “Why not make a brightly coloured wearable accordion?” Widely acknowledged as the master of pleats, Miyake offers new innovative possibilities for dress. Composed primarily of machine-sewn polychrome polyester plain weaved accordion pleats, this prêt-à-porter piece possesses both titular-invoked futuristic characteristics and the timelessness of paper lanterns-esque inspirations. The garment is unexpectedly interactive—the discs can be flattened or opened, allowing for personalised customisation of length compression or extension on the wearer’s part. Miyake highlights the ludic aspect of fashion, giving his customers greater autonomy over their clothes while having fun.
7. “Vilmiron” Dress, Christian Dior, Spring/Summer 1952 haute couture; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs Byron C Foy, 1955 (C.I.55.76.20a-g)
Dior’s “Vilmiron” dress pays tribute to the double muses of Nature and Femininity— a darling flared cream collar neatly balances out its cinched waist, accentuating the full volume of the skirt’s hand-finished white silk organza. Hand-embroidered with artificial flowers in green, pink, yellow, and white silk floss on hand-painted cotton, the floral garnitures are concentrated at the waist, and gradually dispersed nearing the hem. The organic composition creates a diminishing visual effect, mirroring the ephemerality of spring. Further enhanced by the dimensionality of the embroidered stitches, the gown evokes the optical illusion of a meadow’s variegation, illustrating a portrait of poise and sophistication.
8. Dress, Christopher Kane, Spring/Summer 2014 prêt-à-porter; Courtesy of Christopher Kane
Straight out of a textbook, this didactic gem highlights a machine-knit ivory cashmere sweater on a long skirt made of machine-sewn nude silk-synthetic organza. Kane’s ensemble depicts appliqués machine- and hand-embroidered with green, black and orange silk-synthetic thread, interspersed with opalescent sequins. Inspired by the process of photosynthesis, the British designer employed the lush imagery of a flower’s reproductive system to parallel that of a woman’s. Combining sensuality and science, the precision of the laser-cut appliqués accentuates the details of the images taken from a school science book. Edification never looked so good.
9. “Kaikoku” Floating Dress, Hussein Chalayan, Autumn/Winter 2011-12 prêt-à-porter; Courtesy of Christopher Kane
Titled “Kaikoku” (Japanese for “open country”), Chalayan’s metallic gold cast fiberglass ensemble was inspired by Japan’s opening up to the world. Manoeuvred by a handset, the floating dress moves around on invisible wheels, giving the impression of seamless levitation. By allowing the wearer to direct its movement as she pleases, Chalayan grants the consumer further autonomy in the realm of sartorial choices. Designed with 50 spring-loaded Swarovski crystal “pollens”, the pollens are released into the air at an opportune moment, swirling gracefully around the wearer. A poetic gesture, the dress is a polished symbol of new beginnings.
10. Wedding Ensemble, Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Autumn/Winter 2005-6 haute couture; Courtesy of Chanel Patrimoine Collection
Composed of a cascade of 2,500 camellias interwoven with rich plumages of ostrich feathers, Lagerfeld’s wedding ensemble is a veritable floral bouquet in itself. Marrying the talents of two venerable ateliers de métiers, the gown features exquisite craftsmanship by Maison Lemarié and highlights Maison Lesage’s dexterous application of the floral adornments and veiled sequins. Each individual camellia — Chanel’s signature flower — takes up to 90 minutes to create. A stunning tour de force, the ethereal beauty of the dress belies the seven hundred hours it took to construct the piece.
The Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (Met) Costume Institute runs till August 14. Head down today to 81st and Fifth.