Every year I look forward to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual fashion exhibit presented by the Costume Institute. For the past few years, Andrew Bolton, Curator in Chief, has arranged exhibitions that are both fantastic and historical, taking extreme care to preserve the art of fashion. Several months ago, it was announced that this year's exhibit would be titled Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. I'd read that the show would explore the difference between the hand (manus) and the machine (machina), but more about the union of both. Being a lover of couture, I was excited about the possibilities of the topic and to view the pieces that would be included. On a rainy Monday in May, I could barely contain myself as I walked into the Robert Lehman Wing.
I paused as I entered to take a survey of the space. The walls were built high with white pristine mesh screens and metal bars. There were rounded archways and high above, a domed ceiling with a kaleidoscopic projection of metallic sequins. Brian Eno's soothing "An Ending (Ascent)" filled the air making the space simultaneously feel cavernous and warm. In the center under a soft glow, a 2014 Autumn / Winter Chanel Couture wedding gown with a 20 foot train hand painted in gold, machine printed with rhinestones, and hand embroidered with pearls. It serves of an outstanding example of what can be created when hand and machine combine. My first thought was my God, The Met has built a two story cathedral for those of us who would worship at the alter of fashion where Karl Lagerfeld is our shepherd and well made garments are our religion. The only thing missing were dramatic slowly moving doves and winged baby faced angels.
The smaller rooms were all dedicated to the traditional workshops, or métiers, that allowed couturiers to create one of a kind masterpieces. Every niche held a treasure demonstrating trades such as featherwork, pleating, lace making, and leatherwork. Included were basic patterns hand made from paper and muslin to garments molded from polymers by machines. Some looks were accompanied by small projectors showing the creative process.
In the debate of hand versus machine, I personally will always favor the hand. I do not believe that a machine will ever be able to replace the love and care from the hand of a skilled artist. However, that does not mean that I do not recognize the extraordinary union formed between the two. At one time all clothing was made by hand. The sewing machine revolutionized the way and the speed at which we could produce clothing. The invention of techniques such as 3D printing, laser cutting, and heat bonding fabrics will only take us further. I am certain that technology, as it has effected nearly every aspect of our modern lives, will provide us with endless possibilities of wearable art.
This exhibit isn't just for the fashion enthusiast. You don't have to love fashion to discern the extraordinary craftsmanship on display. More than 160 garments are presented close enough for you to view the countless sequins and thousands of tiny shiny beads. Bolton has meticulously organized and curated another exceptional exhibit. I'm already eagerly anticipating what he has in store for next year. What new fashion will 2017 bring us...
PHOTOS BY ADC