A show in New York juxtaposes handmade and technologically fabricated fashion, challenging the assumptions we make about each method, says Anja Wohlstrom
The Costume Institute began as the Museum of Costume Art in 1937, merged with The Met in 1946, and reopened its space as the Anna Wintour Costume Centre in May 2014. The latest show, Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, explores how designers are rethinking the handmade and the machine-made elements for their creations, from avant-garde haute couture to ready to wear collections.
OMA New York, led by Shohei Shigematsu, collaborated with the Met’s design department on this new exhibition, conceived as a series of rooms within rooms and located in the Robert Lehman Wing Gallery. The translucent, mesh-like walls, gently delineate the different areas – a central, circular space surrounded by a wide corridor – giving the space an airy quality.
Wedding ensemble, Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, autumn/winter 2014–15
The exhibition itself is organised around the traditional trades of haute couture, such as pleating, lacework and leatherwork. Each craft has a dedicated wide alcove in the outer perimeter of the hall, while pieces featuring these crafts are displayed in smaller alcoves opposite. Here, older pieces that are entirely hand-made are displayed next to the more modern, industrially-produced ones.
Designers such as Prada and her machine-based crafts are juxtaposed against classic traditional craftsmanship by Yves Saint Laurent, showing the evolution of fashion over time. Backdrops for these exhibits are projected from the central space onto the textile walls, a visually effective tool, and a fitting reference to shimmering, flowing fabric. Displays dedicated to toile (a technique of printing and painting on fabric) and tailoring and dressmaking ateliers are found on a lower level, whose layout mirrors that of the main exhibit.
Dress, Yves Saint Laurent, spring/summer 1983
Flying Saucer dress, Issey Miyake for Miyake Design Studio,
Manus x Machina is thorough in its examination of the development of haute couture from the 19th century, when pieces were made by hand (manus), while the use of industrial methods and mass production (machina) was reserved for ready-to-wear. In this way, it can be viewed as an exploration in which hand and machine are often perceived as conflicting tools in the creative process, questioning the discrepancies between high and everyday fashion. All in all, more than 170 pieces dating from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day are on display, showing work by new and established designers from around the globe, from Christian Dior to Jean Paul Gaultier. It’s fantastic to see older couture pieces next to modern creations, the use of 3D printing next to hand-stitched skills as well as pieces that mix these techniques to create effects that are only possible with the latest technologies.
It all comes together in the show’s central room, which is dedicated to a Chanel wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld with a 20ft train. The ensemble is made of scuba knit, with a machine-made pattern on the train that was hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, machine-printed with rhinestones and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones. It’s a great summary of the exhibition – the hand and the machine working together and complementing one another in one piece. As Apple chief design officer Jony Ive said at the opening of Manus x Machina, craft – whether hand or machine-made – goes hand in hand with beauty and utility.
Kaikoku floating dress, Hussein Chalayan, autumn/winter 2011–12
Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology
Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Nicholas Alan Cope