By Laird Borrelli-Persson
“Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” the forthcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, charts the role of technology in 20th-century fashion, starting with the humble sewing machine. Over time, this workaday instrument revolutionized the industry, which, along with other technological advances, writes Andrew Bolton in the exhibition catalog, “facilitated the development of the haute couture as a separate category within the culture of fashion.” Separate, and greater, that is.
One of the ways that haute couture is distinguished from ready-to-wear (which officially emerged as a competing category in 1973) is its use, and elevation, of the handmade. One of the dresses in the exhibition, a stunning Chanel Haute Couture wedding dress, has a train that took the house’s expert petite mains 450 hours to make. Implied in the elevation of the handmade (high) was the devaluation of the machine-made (low), a dichotomy that is retained in the way we think and talk about fashion, if not in actual practice. It’s time, argues Bolton, for the industry to recognize, across categories, that “hand and machine are equal and mutual protagonists in solving design problems, enhancing design practices, and advancing the future of fashion.”
Andy Warhol, who dreamed of being a machine, wholeheartedly embraced the mechanical and the multiple, notably in portraits, which are at once personal and reproducible. Increasingly, designers are following his lead, using up-to-the-minute technology such as 3-D printing, computer modeling bonding, and ultrasonic welding, to add distinction to their designs, whether they’re custom-making clothes or mass-producing them.
“Manus x Machina” includes designers as diverse as Martin Margiela and Gareth Pugh, Iris van Herpen and Yves Saint Laurent, and will be organized along the lines of a traditional maison de couture in which there are departments for tailoring and dressmaking (flou). These are supported by métiers dedicated to pleating and folding, lacework and leatherwork, embroidery, featherwork, and artificial flowers, all of which will be represented in the show.
Reading an advance copy of the catalog, which features photographs by Nicholas Alan Cope, it is impossible not to be struck by the sheer artistry of the clothing—regardless of category. And that’s as it should be. As Jonathan Ive, chief design officer at Apple, the show’s sponsor, states: “Ultimately, it is the amount of care invested in the craftsmanship, whether machine-made or handmade, that transforms ordinary materials into something extraordinary.”
Above, an advance look at some of the exhibition’s showstopping pieces.
“Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 5 to August 14.