Handmade and Machine-Made Fashion Unite at the Met's Exceptional Manus x Machina Exhibit

Handmade and Machine-Made Fashion Unite at the Met's Exceptional Manus x Machina Exhibit
Nicholas Alan Cope

It's a dreary Monday. But the gloomy weather (or the wait outside in the rain) faded into a distant memory once we were herded inside the "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a space that Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Met, described as a "building within a building, a cathedral of sorts with screen-covered domes." It's breathtaking, and the masterpieces showcased, even more so.

Hailed as the buzziest exhibit of the year, Manus x Machina lives up to, if not exceeds, all expectations. But despite "technology" in the title, this is not a display nor an exploration of wearable technology. There aren't any LED light-up dresses, holographic elements, or sci-fi-like dresses that convert on a whim (but don't worry, there are other Hussein Chalayan creations featured). Manus x Machina, Latin for hand x machine, is a study in the relationship between what is handmade versus what is machine-made in haute couture versus prêt-à​-porter, or ready-to-wear.

Interestingly enough, dresses that date all the way back to the 1950s were crafted from machinery. In fact, Andrew Bolton, the curator at The Costume Institute, says he was astonished to learn that Yves Saint Laurent's iconic Mondrian dress from his 1965 couture collection was largely made by machine. And the "Vilmiron" dress on display, designed by Christian Dior as part of the house's 1952 haute couture collection, was actually machine-sewn, but hand-finished with white silk organza and hand-embroidered with artificial flowers.

From this stemmed Bolton's ultimate source of inspiration—Karl Lagerfeld's finale "Wedding Ensemble" dress from the autumn/winter 2014-15 Chanel couture collection (pictured, above). It's a gown that illustrates this meeting between man and machine. It's a gown that Lagerfeld describes as "haute couture without the couture," because of its scuba knit construction that's hand molded, machine sewn, and hand finished. The train, which spans practically the full length of the atrium at the exhibition, was sketched by hand, digitally manipulated, hand-painted with gold, and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones. It took 450 hours to make.

Couture designs are assumed to be made entirely done by hand, while ready-to-wear, mass-produced or machine-made. What this exhibition does is break down these traditional schools of thought, and show us that the two aren't mutually exclusive. "The technical separation between couture and prêt-à​-porter is diminishing with the shared usage of hand techniques and mechanical technologies," Bolton says in a speech during the press preview. "The convergence of the hand-made and machine-made not only challenge traditional assumptions, but also more importantly, push the potential of fashion."

The exhibition spans two floors and it's structured around métiers, or trades, of dressmaking, which was infamously outlined in the controversial 18th-century publication Encyclopédie. Essentially, Manus x Machina is an adaptation of Encyclopédie come to life. The first floor gallery explores embroidery, featherwork, and artificial flowers, while the ground floor gallery examines pleating lacework, and leatherwork.

Scroll through to see a selection of the dresses on display, but the pictures really don't do it justice. We highly recommend seeing it in person. The "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" is open from May 5 to August 14 in the Robert Lehman wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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