"Manus x Machina" Reveals the Complex Construction of Fashion's Most Elaborate Gowns

The Costume Institute's landmark exhibit of the year opens to the public Thursday.
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Chanel Wedding ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Nicholas Alan Cope

Chanel Wedding ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Nicholas Alan Cope

Remember the showstopping Guo Pei dress that instantly become a symbol for the Costume Institute's record-breaking "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit last summer? Upon entering the Metropolitan Museum department's major exhibit of 2016, "Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology," a Chanel dress provides the same Instagram-friendly focal point — and illustrates the theme of the exhibit in one long gilded train. As head curator Andrew Bolton explained in his opening remarks, the train designed by Karl Lagerfeld for the fall 2014 haute couture collection was initially sketched by hand, then manipulated on the computer to create the appearance of a "pixelated baroque pattern," then hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, then machine-printed with rhinestones and finally hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones. As you might expect, it took 450 hours of workmanship to create. 

Bolton explained that the layered production is not only radical in terms of technological advancement, but also because it defies the traditional idea that haute couture is handmade and irreproducible. "Traditionally, the hand has been identified with exclusivity, spontaneity and individuality, yet ultimately representative of elitism, the cult of personality and a detrimental nostalgia for past craftsmanship," said Bolton. "Likewise, the machine has been understood to signify not only progress, democracy and mass production, but also inferiority, dehumanization and homogenization." In "Manus x Machina," Bolton aims to "liberate the handmade and the machine-made from their usual confines of haute couture and prêt-à-porter and release them in the hands of fashion designers," he said. 

Yves Saint Laurent spring/summer 1983 haute couture dress. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yves Saint Laurent spring/summer 1983 haute couture dress. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To that end, the Costume Institute has organized the exhibit on two circular floors in the museum's Robert Lehman wing. Surrounding a room dedicated to the aforementioned Chanel wedding gown is a circular hallway with over a dozen niches filled with designer pieces that exemplify embroidery and artificial flowers, as well as a side gallery for featherwork pieces. Downstairs are more galleries illustrating pleating, lacework and leatherwork. The categories mimic 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot's revolutionary "Encyclopédie," which explained dressmaking through these different métiers, or trades.

Every costume in the exhibit, ranging from an 1870 Irish hand-crocheted wedding dress lace with three dimensional motifs to a 2013 Iris van Herpen silicone laser-cut feather dress with hand-applied silicone-coated bird skulls, is complemented by wall text that explains exactly how it was made. In some very complex cases, there is a small video explanation projected next to the text. "Each piece has been dissected, metaphorically speaking, to determine its genetic makeup and clarify its position on the hand-machine continuum," said Bolton. "The results of this 'DNA testing' are stated underneath every garment, almost like a medical record." 

A view of "Manus x Machina." Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A view of "Manus x Machina." Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

But the genetic makeup reveals that almost every one of the exhibit's dresses was made through some kind of combination of hand and machine, which seems to undermine how radical that practice actually is. "As the exhibition demonstrates, designers of either haute couture or prêt-à-porter seldom discriminate against the hand and the machine in their design process," said Bolton. "The hand and the machine are rarely absent in the act of fashion creation; instead, they are employed in tandem to resolve design issues and arrive at artistic solutions." Such a tidy answer to Bolton's thesis deflates some of the tension of the exhibit, particularly in light of last year's courageous "China," which tackled appropriation and interpretation in an intelligent and approachable way. 

Moreover, the normal museum visitor probably doesn't understand prêt-à-porter to be any different than haute couture. Machine-made processes may be more democratic by definition, but 3D printing and machine-garment-pleating, for example, are still very expensive propositions for designers and consumers alike. And by confining the exhibit to the worlds of haute couture and prêt-à-porter, Bolton doesn't bring in examples of technologically advanced practices or wearable technology from outside the designer runway world. There are no 3D printed heels, Apple watches or groundbreaking athletic fabrics here, leaving the feeling that "Manus x Machina" is only one part of the story.

That being said, there is so much to glean from the stunning and ornate pieces in the exhibit. Just the opportunity to look closely at van Herpen's first 3D printed piece — which features 10 lines in one millimeter, like a fingerprint — is an compelling reason this exhibit is not to be missed. Every dress yields surprises the closer one looks, especially in conjunction with the explanatory wall texts. Other highlights include Issey Miyake's “132 5" collection of expanding geometric clothing; Dior's 1949 "Junon" and "Venus" hand-sewn opalescent sequins dresses; so many Sarah Burton creations for Alexander McQueen; the 1983 Yves Saint Laurent “sardine” dress, whose surface embellishments took 1,500 hours to produce; and a pair of 2015 Gareth Pugh dresses completely covered in clear and black drinking straws. And even though the exhibit is smaller than "China," repeat visits are sure to reveal even more awe-inspiring details, the result of hundreds of hours from both man and machine. 

"Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology" is open from May 5 through August 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.