The quiet. The minute. The hidden. The unsung. These are the surprising elements of fashion that have come together in ‘Manus X Machina Fashion in an Age of Technology’, which is perhaps the most contemplative exhibition of all the “blockbuster” openings, I’ve seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Quiet doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful though. In the Robert Lehman Wing galleries, reconfigured and designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA New York, to the celestial soundtrack of Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)”, the fabrics, the hours, the skills of both hand (manus) and machine (machine) and the creative thinking that has gone into over 170 ensembles are laid out before you in a deliberately matter-of-fact and almost taxonomically detailed manner.
The labelling and descriptions alone in Manus x Machina deserve recognition, as the sheer amount of information defies the general currency of social media, mainstream media at large and pop culture – as in, hazy on details, decreasing depth, and short and snappy Insta-worthy moments accompanied by razz-ma-razz. It is perhaps head curator Andrew Bolton’s way of reacting to the state of an industry, that has undergone vast post-Internet changes and is still questioning its present modus operandi. Manus x Machina therefore opens at a particularly pertinent time, with the capability to showcase fashion, not with fancy projections, props and special effects as has been the case in previous Costume Institute exhibitions, but instead, with functional dress dummies, zero glass separating the viewer and garment, and plenty of weighty information for you to take in and marvel at.
Descriptions such as the following paragraph, which accompanies the bulbous-skirted Chanel wedding dress, opening the exhibition in the central atrium…
“This ensemble, which Lagerfeld has described as “haute couture without the couture,” exemplifies the confluence of the hand (manus) and the machine (machina). Made from scuba knit, a synthetic material, the dress is hand molded, machine sewn, and hand finished. Maison Desrues (founded 1929) hand embroidered the buttons with gold, glass, and crystals, and Atelier Montex (founded 1939) hand embroidered the medallion with glass, crystals, paillettes, anthracite cannetilles, and gold leather leaf motifs. The train of scuba knit and silk satin is machine sewn and hand finished. Lagerfeld’s hand-drawn design was digitally manipulated to give it the appearance of a randomized, pixelated baroque pattern and then realized through a complex amalgam of hand and machine techniques. Atelier Lunas (founded 1993) used a heat press to transfer the rhinestones; Atelier Anne Gelbard (founded 1997) painted the gold metallic pigment by hand; and the pearls and gemstones were hand embroidered by Cécile Henri Atelier (founded 1982).”
This is the kind of detail that you barely find in brand press notes these days, let alone journalists’ write-ups on collections. One might argue that the average person doesn’t need to know which metier house made the buttons or why a scuba knit has been hand-moulded. It’s the sort of insight that perhaps isn’t particularly celebrated in wider media or perhaps doesn’t really matter to the end customer but for me, all of this detailed minutiae on the creation process of a garment, is an idealistically and gratifyingly archaic way of thinking of fashion. It’s an approach that I feel will shift an industry from its frenetic breakneck speed to a slower and more thoughtful one.
Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld wedding ensemble from Autumn/winter haute couture 2014–15
Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, 1758–71, vol. 1 by Denis Diderot
In the embroidery section, the great works of houses like Lesage, and the lesser known Hurel, Lanel and Montex. Haute couture blurs into ready to wear with the pervasive presence of Sarah Burton’s pieces for Alexander McQueen (alas, consistently mistaken as Lee McQueen’s work by the general visitors that I overheard) and her metallic hand-shredded petals,embroidered with silver beads, clear crystals and feather palettes. Ensembles and dresses are often grouped by colour and appearance to then contrast their period of origin as well as the techniques that have gone into the pieces. Proenza Schouler’s dense astrakhan embroidery couldn’t be more different from Iris van Herpen’s alien-like rubber texture, hand sculpted with magnets. Progress and advancement in technique over time is also a prevalent theme as sequin embroidery ranges from flat laid-out circular shapes on the Norman Norell mid-20th-century dresses to the iridescent coils of Nicolas Ghesquière’s bubble dresses from the Louis Vuitton S/S 16 collection.
Dior by Yves Saint Laurent “L’Eléphant Blanc” evening dress, Spring/summer haute couture 1958
Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton evening dress, Spring/summer 2012
Dior by Christian Dior dresses, Autumn/winter haute couture 1949-50
Givenchy by Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, 1963 haute couture // Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton dress, Spring/summer 2012
Proenza Schouler dress, Autumn/winter 2015-6 // Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter haute coutuer 2013-4
Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent ‘Sardine’ dress, Spring/summer haute couture 1983
Norman Norrell dresses from 1953/1965
Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière dresses, Spring/summer 2016
Halston evening dress, 1970 // Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2011-2
Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela ensemble, Spring/summer 1996 // Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière dress, Autumn/winter 2016-7
A shift from the natural to the synthetic can be seen in the leatherwork section. Once upon a time, there were many maisons that specialised in the art of plumasserie – the treating, shaping and gathering of feathers to adorn hats and frocks. The delicate soft strands of ostrich features lifting off of a 1960s Balenciaga dress become more rigid and sculptural when contrasted with Iris van Herpen’s laser cut silicone paired with a real silicone-coated bird-head skeleton on the sleeve or RCA graduate Maiko Takeda’s halo-esque acetate fringing.
Gareth Pugh dresses, Autumn/winter 2015-6
Givenchy by Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, 1966-7 haute couture
Balenciaga by Cristobal Balenciaga evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 1965-6 // Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2013–14
Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 1969–70
Dior by Raf Simons dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2015–16
Maiko Takeda “Atmospheric Reentry” ensemble, 2013
Like feathers, flowers have always been a significant part of haute couture embellishment. The permutations of artificial flowers in fashion are probably even more varied, as designers have shifted from a flower’s organic and natural form to abstract interpretations. The Chanel wedding dress from the A/W 05-6 haute couture collection covered in hand-shaped camellias, crafted in Lemarié, with each one taking up to ninety minutes to complete. Taking longer to craft a flower though does not necessarily yield a superior result as Prada’s machine embroidery and and sponge-like dresses with floral appliqué demonstrates. “For me, mixing the hand and the machine gives the best results,” says Miuccia Prada in the accompanying quote. “I don’t think the hand and the machine have any use or value on their own. What matters is the form in relationship with the idea.”
The idea of flowers takes on an extreme form in Hussein Chalayan’s “Kaikoku” floating dress from his A/W 11-2 collection where a cast fibreglass structure is painted with pearled paper and crystal “pollens”. Via remote control, the “pollens” are released into the air through spring and swirl around the wearer. On video, it’s a mesmerising feat of engineering. With the presence of Chalayan and van Herpen’s work at the exhibition, we get to see the possibilities of pushing a metier to new limits, with unconventional materials and the use of circuit board technology (what come to mind for most people when they think of wearable tech).
Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld wedding ensemble, Autumn/winter haute couture 2005–6
Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2015-6
Dior by Raf Simons evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2012-3, Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs dress, Spring/summer 2012
Boué Soeurs court presentation ensemble, 1928 haute couture
Hussein Chalayan “Duck” Dress, Spring/summer 2000
Alexander McQueen dresses, Spring/summer 2009 // Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent wedding ensemble, Spring/summer RTW 1999
Dior by Raf Simons dress, Spring/summer haute couture 2014
Hussein Chalayan “Kaikoku” floating dress, Autumn/winter 2011–12
Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2016-7 // Christopher Kane ensemble, Spring/summer 2014
Dior by Christian Dior dresses, Spring/summer haute couture 1952 and 1953
On the lower level of the exhibition, we’re taken on a very in-depth exploration of pleating, so vast, it requires two parts. It shows the advances made by pleating that takes it from something that was an exclusively haute couture technique, as seen in Mariano Fortuny’s gowns that had to be sent back to the workshops to have the pleats reset if they got wet or flat, progressing to American designer Mary McFadden’s patented “Marii” method of pleating synthetic charmeuse and finally arriving at Issey Miyake’s pioneering Pleats Please garments that aren’t just ready-to-wear, but ready-to-go with its heat-pressed wrinkle-free construction. It also takes us back to the hand in one of the most notable examples of pleating, done by the house of Lognon (one subsidiary of the Paraffection group that I’m dying to visit!) for that sublime Dior S/S 15 collection by Raf Simons.
Madame Grès dresses, 1968/1935 haute couture // Iris van Herpen ensemble, Spring/summer haute couture 2010
Mariano Fortuny dress, ca. 1920 haute couture
Mary McFadden 1980s dresses
Issey Miyake “Flying Saucer” Dress, Spring/summer 1994
Issey Miyake “Rhythm Pleats”, Spring/summer 1990
Dior by Raf Simons dresses, Spring/summer haute couture 2015
Pleating gets further exploration when the technique of folding fabric, is placed under a classical umbrella, from Madame Grès and Nicolas Ghesquière’s Grecian column-like pleats that mould onto the body to mathematic techniques in Junya Watanabe’s 3D geometric pieces and Nao Raviv’s distorted grid line constructions.
Comme des Garçons by Junya Watanabe dress, Autumn/winter 2015-6 // Pierre Cardin dress, 1968 haute couture
Comme des Garçons by Junya Watanabe ruff, Autumn/winter 2000–01
Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière dress, Spring/summer 2003
Noa Raviv ensembles, 2014 RTW
Thierry Mugler “Neon dans la Nuit” suit, Autumn/winter 1990–91
The one section that isn’t informed by a categorised metier is the section of Tailleur & Flou, the way most haute couture ateliers are organised into tailoring and dressmaking. This is where the foundations of a garment are revealed and perhaps is the least “visible” of all the sections in the exhibition. It’s where toiles are exposed – either deliberately as a design feature as in a John Galliano for Dior gown, where layers of construction and draping are revealed, or in Martin Margiela’s stockman jackets that were of course later revived by Galliano at Maison Margiela. Canvas, the fabric of patternmaking and toileing explodes in a Comme des Garcons ensemble. Quieter pattern cutting prowess can be seen in both hand-finished dresses like Courrèges’ sleek A-line dress as well as Prada’s nylon dress from the 90s. Form and shape can cycle through very different guises as seen in the central display of Dior’s New Look “Bar Jacket” pitted next to a Paco Rabanne dress and the combination of the two, Hussein Chalyan’s S/S 07 mechanical dress.
Christian Dior “Bar Suit” jacket, Spring/summer haute couture 1947 // Hussein Chalayan “One Hundred and Eleven” mechanical dress, Spring/summer 2007 // Paco Rabanne dress, 1967 haute couture
Hussein Chalayan dress, Spring/summer 2009
Dior by John Galliano ensemble, Autumn/winter haute couture 2005–6
Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière ensemble, Autumn/winter 2010-11
Where wooly press releases fail, the exhibition excels as I could finally see the intricate layering of 3-D printed (done by Materialise, the lab responsible for most of the examples of 3D printing in the show) “quilted” polyamide that is then hand-stitched with beads by Lesage
Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld suits, Autumn/winter haute couture 2015–16
Vionnet by Hussein Chalayan dress, Spring/summer demi-couture 2014 // Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela coat, Autumn/winter demi-couture 1997–98
Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela “Drapery Study” Waistcoat, Spring/summer demi-couture 1997 // Maison Margiela by John Galliano jackets, Spring/summer haute couture 2015
Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo ensemble, Spring/summer 2013 // Viktor & Rolf ensemble, Spring/summer haute couture 1998
In lace and leather work, the levels of intricacy which can be achieved by hand and more traditional jacquard patterns versus that which can be achieved by 3D printing is immediately apparent, when you compare a Victorian Irish wedding dress dripping with hand crocheted cream and Proenza Schouler’s “stone lace” created by ceramic yarn embroidery that is then dipped into acid. The close-up details reveal a mind-boggling uniformity. The same goes for leatherwork where hand-cutting replaced by laser cutting has yielded more precise work.
Irish wedding dress, ca. 1870
Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld dress, Spring/summer haute couture 2013 // Callot Soeurs evening dress, ca. 1920 haute couture
Simone Rocha “Wet Lace Frill Dress”, Spring/summer 2014 // Balenciaga by Cristobal Balenciaga cocktail dress, Autumn/winterhaute couture 1963–64
Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn haute couture 2012
Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2008–9
Christopher Kane ensemble, Spring/summer 2013 // Iris van Herpen dress, Spring/summer RTW 2015
Yves Saint Laurent suit, Spring/summer haute couture 1963
threeASFOUR “Interdimensional” Dress, Spring/summer 2016 // Proenza Schouler dress, Autumn/winter 2013–14
Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter RTW 2011–12 // Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2010–11
threeASFOUR “Bahai” Dress, Spring/summer 2014
Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton dress, Spring/summer 2012
Paul Poiret coat, ca. 1919 haute couture
Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs dress, Spring/summer 2012
Dior by Raf Simons dress, Autumn/winter RTW 2013–14
Comme des Garçons Noir Kei Ninomiya dresses, Spring/summer 2014 and 2015
I didn’t have the time to do so but if I did, I would have gone around the exhibition again in reverse order, revisiting the garments that sparked interest. There’s something comforting in the level of detail and as some other reviewers have noted, the “geekery” involved in this exhibition. It’s what you crave at a time when more unsavoury aspects of the fashion industry are constantly being levied and discussed and for that, you have to congratulate Bolton for reminding you of what happens when the mind creates magic with both manus and machine.