The Met Museum's 'Manus x Machina' Exhibit Highlights Haute Couture, Machine-Made Fashion

Manus x Machina - H 2016
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"Instead of presenting the handmade and machine-made as oppositional, [the exhibit] suggests that both are equal protagonists in solving design problems," said curator Andrew Bolton at Monday's press preview.

Inside New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, a coral-colored Givenchy dress from 1963 sat beside an Alexander McQueen silk organdy gown of the same hue that was made five decades later. Both required the use of a sewing machine and both were a feast for the eyes: hand-embroidered with glass beads and embellished with extraordinary coral detail. But in the fashion world, they sit at two different lunch tables: haute couture (a singularly crafted model tailored specifically to the body) and pret-a-porter (a garment produced in multiples for the masses). 

Viewers who hadn’t read the museum’s display copy likely wouldn’t have known the difference, though — and it is precisely through this juxtaposition that curator Andrew Bolton is able to erase binaries at the Costume Institute's new "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" exhibit.

MANUS x MACHINA: A close-up look of the coral-embellished gown from Sarah Burton's Alexander McQueen spring 2012 collection. (Photo: Brooke Mazurek)

"Traditionally, the hand was the identifier of exclusivity, spontaneity and individuality ... the machine has been understood to represent inferiority, mass production dehumanization," he explained at a press preview on Monday. "Instead of presenting the handmade and machine-made as oppositional, [the exhibit] suggests that both are equal protagonists in solving design problems."

Structured around the metiers (i.e. the trades of dressmaking) outlined in the Encyclopedie — one of the most provocative publications of the French Enlightenment that placed the crafts of fashion on the same sphere as other arts and sciences — the exhibit spans more than 100 examples of haute couture and ready-to-wear pieces, beginning with 1880's Worth gown. The metiers of embroidery, featherwork and artificial flowers sit on the upper floor while pleating, lacework and leatherwork are featured on the lower floor.

MANUS x MACHINA: The Yves Saint Laurent "Sardine" dress from the 1983 couture show that took 1,500 hours to complete. (Photo: Brooke Mazurek)

Though the exhibit as a whole was inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1965 Mondrian dress (which Bolton views up-close for the first time in the newly released First Monday In May documentary), it’s Karl Lagerfeld’s autumn/winter 2014-15 haute couture wedding dress that lies at the heart of the exhibit’s first floor display. Made through a complex amalgam of hand and machine techniques, it required more than 450 hours of work.

Despite its grandeur, though, the confluence of old and new could be felt most palpably beside it, where designer Maiko Takeda wandered around the room in one of her Atmospheric Re-entry headpieces. "I printed all of these colors on plastic and then hand sliced them," Takeda, who designed pieces for Bjork, said of her headpiece. "It’s technology, but it’s all handmade." She just so happened to be standing in between the display case that housed one of the old, browning Encyclopedies.

COLORFUL HEAD: Designer Maiko Takeda (Photo: Brooke Mazurek)