With 170-plus examples of haute couture and ready-to-wear designs from the 19th century to the 21st, Manus x Machina largely lives up to its ambitious agenda of examining the symbiosis between traditional handcrafted work and technological innovation in fashion’s history.
Divided into sections that survey artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, etc., the exhibition lacks an in-depth look at the craftspeople—largely women—and machines that make the often exquisite creations on view, as well as a broader examination of the impact of software-based industrial production on the clothing industry today. Nonetheless, Manus x Machina delivers the goods when it comes to the physical costumes themselves. It is the kind of highfalutin entertainment that the Met does particularly well—a crowd pleaser with a modicum of scholarship for the fashion enthusiasts.
In a show with so many top fashion names, the corporate pecking order becomes painfully apparent in the over-representation of select houses. Chanel by way of Karl Lagerfeld literally becomes the axis around which the rest of the exhibition revolves, comprehensively organised as two floors of circular galleries. At its fulcrum, the central room on the top floor features a faux-royal wedding dress ensemble, machine sewn, from Lagerfeld’s 2014 Autumn/Winter collection adorned with an extravagantly long train made with polyester double-knit and silk satin.
The elaborate design on the train, based on a hand-drawn template by Lagerfeld that he transformed with imaging software into a randomised pattern, is machine-printed with hot rhinestones, hand-painted with metallic pigment, and then hand-embroidered with gemstones. The exhibition literature describes Lagerfeld’s creation as exemplifying the marriage of hand and machine, and indeed its appearance suggests a super-human, or perhaps inhuman, perfection.
An ambient soundtrack plays in the background, no doubt intimating that the audience is standing in the presence of the future of fashion, while original printed copies of Diderot and Voltaire’s Encyclopédie surround. The Encyclopédie, according to the wall text, had the temerity to suggest that Couture stood on an equal footing with the arts and sciences, which, is an excellent point: fashion has always been serious stuff.
Unfortunately, the curators undercut that message by making one of the most conventional works the centrepiece for the show, opting for glitz over substance when there were other costume designs leveraging advances in technology and materials in profound and surprising ways that were more deserving of centre stage.
One candidate could have been English designer Gareth Pugh’s pair of dresses from 2015 Autumn/Winter made of drinking straws, which introduces the feather section. One black and the other white, both dresses are fashioned from vertically aligned, hand-cut drinking straws. While they look vaguely threatening, like the hides of giant porcupines—exuding a sort of anarchic energy that hearkens back to London’s punk explosion in the 1970s—the dresses also catch a remarkably beautiful light.
Another suitor, upping the technology ante, could have been British designer Hussein Chalayan’s “Kaikoku” Floating Dress (2011 Autumn/Winter). Made from cast fibreglass painted with metallic pigment, it feature Swarovski crystal and pearled paper projectiles embedded all around that Chalayan calls “pollens.” The wearer stands inside the dress, which moves about on remote-controlled wheels, launching its “pollen” into the air with the press of a button. Obviously, this is not a dress one can sit down in; it is a statement about Chalayan’s preoccupations with the intersection between art, nature, and politics.
The most challenging and visionary fashion statements consistently originate from the hands and mind of the amazing Dutch designer Iris van Herpen. Time and again her use of new materials and technologies, such as three-dimensional printing and laser-cut forms, produce the most provocative, arresting, and often strangely beautiful costumes in the exhibition.
One dress, from 2013 Autumn/Winter, drafted in collaboration with Dutch designer Jólan van der Wiel, employs a technique that embeds metal fragments in a rubber solution. The rubber gets poured onto cotton, and while still soft, is pulled by magnets into spiky forms that hold their shape once the rubber cures—looking like the surface of an alien world. Another dress by van Herpen, from 2012 Autumn/Winter—a three-dimensional print in dark orange epoxy, hand sanded, and hand sprayed with transparent resin—truly represents the acme of cutting-edge technology and handiwork. Rather than using selective laser sintering, its production involves stereolithography, which builds layer upon layer of material, allowing for greater transparency and greater granularity in texture.
The mind-bogglingly ethereal result, with its minute details, appears in the Dentellerie (Lacework) section. It points to a horizon where three-dimensional printing and other novel techniques will grant designers unparalleled freedom to achieve results as yet unimagined, provided they have the nerve to pursue them.
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