The Met’s Manus x Machina Explores the Art of Fashion

With a name like “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” the casual observer would be forgiven for assuming that robots pay a major role in this summer’s Costume Institute exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In fact, apart from a few pieces by Turkish fashion designer Hussein Chalayan—molded fiberglass dresses that transform when prompted by a remote control—the exhibition is decidedly lacking in robots.

Instead, Manus x Machina explores how designers are reconciling the handmade and the machine-made in the creation of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear.

“Fashion and technology are inextricably connected, more so now than ever before,” Thomas Campbell, the Met’s director and chief executive, explained in a press release. “It is therefore timely to examine the roles that the handmade and the machine-made have played in the creative process. This exhibition proposes a new view in which the hand and the machine, often presented as oppositional, are mutual and equal protagonists.”

Running through Aug. 14 in the museum’s Robert Lehman Wing, the Apple-sponsored exhibition features more than 170 ensembles, spanning a 19th century hand-crocheted Irish lace wedding dress to a 2014 scuba-knit gown by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, with a 20-foot train hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, machine-printed with rhinestones, and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones.

“Traditionally, the distinction between the haute couture and prêt-à-porter was based on the handmade and the machine-made, but recently this distinction has become increasingly blurred as both disciplines have embraced the practices and techniques of the other,” Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, said. “Manus x Machina challenges the conventions of the hand/machine dichotomy and proposes a new paradigm germane to our age of technology.”

As such, the exhibition is structured around the traditional métiers of haute couture. A series of alcoves on the first floor examine embroidery, featherwork, and artificial flowers. The ground floor space has more of a flow, with interconnected rooms examining pleating, lacework and leatherwork, as well as a room dedicated to toiles and the ateliers of tailoring and dressmaking. On both floors, traditional hand techniques are discussed alongside such off-the-moment technologies as 3-D printing, computer modeling, bonding and laminating, laser cutting, and ultrasonic welding.

Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, commented, “Both the automated and handcrafted process require similar amounts of thoughtfulness and expertise. There are instances where technology is optimized, but ultimately it’s the amount of care put into the craftsmanship, whether it’s machine-made or handmade, that transforms ordinary materials into something extraordinary.”

Designers appearing in Manus x Machina include: Cristobal Balenciaga, Thom Browne, Sarah Burton (Alexander McQueen), Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Christian Dior, Nicolas Ghesquière (Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton), Hubert de Givenchy, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough (Proenza Schouler), Iris van Herpen, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren (Viktor & Rolf), Marc Jacobs (Louis Vuitton), Christopher Kane, Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, Noir Kei Ninomiya (Comme des Garçons), Miuccia Prada, Gareth Pugh, Simone Rocha, Yves Saint Laurent (Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent), Raf Simons (Christian Dior), Riccardo Tisci (Givenchy), Junya Watanabe (Comme des Garçons), and Yohji Yamamoto, among others.

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