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Exhibition Review: Manus x Machina

Exhibition Review: Manus x Machina

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY), May 5-September 5, 2016

Is fashion art, and does it have a place in the museum? This question was a prominent theme in the recently released film, The First Monday in May, about the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibition and gala for China Through the Looking Glass. [1] More recently, the Costume Institute’s 2016 show Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, curated by Andrew Bolton, invites the museum-goer to further ponder this question, aiming its focus on the craft and processes behind the “art.”

Unlike previous Costume Institute shows, Manus x Machina was exhibited in the re-organized Lehmann Galleries located in the north end of the museum. Grand yet austere, the galleries were transformed to draw the viewer’s eye to the details that embellish and adorn fashion on the surface, as well as the techniques used in its construction. The show’s attendance numbers gained it a spot on the list of the museum’s most visited shows and marked an interesting turn away from the design-heavy sets used in the previous three big Spring shows. Unlike in previous years, Manus x Machina was minimally designed to enable the viewer to get up close to the details and techniques used in the fabrication of couture and prêt-à-porter garments. The spot-lighting, projections of details in large scale and the music produced by Brian Eno all contributed to a sense of glorification and reverence for the objects in the show.

Upon entering the galleries, the viewer is confronted with the exhibition’s case study: the Chanel 2014/2015 couture wedding gown that represents all the ideas set forth in the exhibition as a whole and visually and materially represents the interactions between the hand-made and machine-made. The dress was molded using synthetic neoprene-like material into a silhouette inspired by the medieval images of women with rounded bellies. With minimal seams, the dress also features a cathedral-length train embellished with thousands of crystals and beads in a digitally pixelated rendering of a Baroque damask pattern. The dress perfectly represents the interactions between contemporary material technologies and fibers, a digital re-interpretation of historical patterns and the use of numerous stages of intricate handwork to achieve what a machine could not.

In a time of fast fashion, questionable mass-market offshore production, and corporatization of the global luxury sector, Manus x Machina focuses on the skills and techniques used in design and construction and how technologies, whether analog or digital, help in creating the fashions which have been canonized within the history of design. As demonstrated by the widespread inclusion of gimmicky robotic elements in the outfits worn by many who attended the Met Gala associated with this show, it’s easy for those who grew up in the digital age to misunderstand the term “technology” as necessarily implicated with the machine or digital.

“Technology” used here, though, also encompasses the technologies developed by couturiers and artisans to manipulate materials to fit, embellish, and adorn peoples’ bodies. The essential interaction played out in this exhibition is not exclusively between couture and ready-made, or re-interpreted contemporary derivatives of designs of the past, but of the evolution of technologies used to create fashion over time and how designers, whether based in the couture tradition or designing with a mass-market in mind, employ techniques and emerging technologies to surpass and enhance what came before them.

Bolton also gave equal importance to historically significant designs such as an example of a Dior New Look skirt suit from 1949 or a group of Fortuny tea dresses from the beginning of the twentieth century and the work of contemporary designers such as Iris Van Herpen and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler.

This show used temporal and material juxtapositioning as its prime method in displaying the interactions between technique (hand and/or machine), process (when final design interacts with construction processes), and historical derivatives (early couture garments and more recent pieces inspired by the former but enhanced with the digital and machine-made characteristics more frequently used by contemporary designers). One of the most successful aspects of this show was how it was organized by the numerous métiers found within the couture guilds of old (and still exist in a more corporatized form today): Tailleur et Flou (tailoring, suiting, structured garments, and dressmaking/draping), Maroquinerie (leather), Plisse (pleating), Broderie (embroidery), Plumasserie (featherwork), Parurier Florale (artificial flowers), Toiles (patterns), Dentellerie (lacework). The juxtaposed historic couture garments with the work of more current designers successfully demonstrates the historic continuum that is the thesis of the show: that technology—whether that of the hand or the machine—is in constant interplay in the realm of design and construction.

As a fashion and textile historian, I’m very much absorbed by the narrative of fashion’s shift from a couture-based industry in France towards prêt-à-porter in the late 1960s. My own graduate research focused on the period of the 1960s and 1970s in France, and how an institutionalized industry such as the French couture tradition adapted and interacted with the massive shift from couture to ready-to-wear. What made Manus x Machina so important was its ability to break down common misconceptions within the canon of fashion history.

As the exhibition theme and catalogue attest, the historical hierarchy between handmade custom garments (couture) and machine-made sportswear (prêt-à-porter) has been consistently portrayed as the former being far superior. The myth that what makes couture unique is its craftsmanship and total reliance on artisanal production is chipped away at by this show. Examples such as the case study Chanel Couture gown, along with other prêt-à-porter garments that were hand-finished, demonstrate that modernization of design and originality in couture is necessarily implicated with the digital i.e. the machine-made world and vice-versa.

The overall decline of traditional craftsmanship and the historical techniques used in couture can be attributed to the global shift in fashion toward ready-made garments since the late-1960s. Many small houses that have historically furnished couturiers with the technologies used in designs, such as embroiderers, pleating houses, etc. are disappearing. Some have managed to remain by integrating into larger luxury conglomerates, such as Chanel’s recent purchase of the embroidery house of Lesage. Therefore, what makes this exhibition ever more timely is its focus on construction techniques and craftsmanship and how they have remained in constant dialogue over time, while continuing to modernize and adapt to shifts in technology.

The catalogue, however, presents an alternate perception of the interactions between couture and ready-made through the lens of the designer. As striking as the exhibition, the catalogue features beautiful images of most of the objects in the show, with minimal text. Like the show, the book is divided into the same categories with a brief description of the techniques used by each métier. The additional insight, however, comes with the catalogue essays in the format of an added book slip of interviews conducted by Andrew Bolton with some of the designers whose designs were included in the show, such as Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, and Maria Grazia Chiuri and PierPaolo Piccolini of Valentino, among others. The interview format works to enhance and further problematize the thesis of Manus x Machina, as it is clear that the way in which designers think about and work through the intersections of the hand- and machine-made is more fluid.

Whether within the context of couture or prêt-à-porter, technology and its interactions with technique seem to be a constant inspiration and challenge for designers; a tool to work with and work through, able to adapt to the ever-changing pace of fashion. By focusing on the processes of fashion and how they interact across time and space, Manus x Machina subtly makes the case for fashion fitting comfortably within the realm of art and the galleries of the museum.


[1] Andrew Rossi, The First Monday in May, Magnolia Pictures, documentary film, April 15, 2016.

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