The Metropolitan Museum of Art is only closed four days out of the entire year—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the first Monday in May. These times mark major holidays, but the last one in particular is no doubt a holiday specific to the fashion world.
Each year, the Met’s Costume Institute presents an annual themed fashion exhibiton, celebrated on the evening of the first Monday in May with the Costume Institute Benefit, also known as the Met Gala. This year’s show, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” opened May 2.
During the exhibition’s preview just hours before the gala, the Met was packed with media representatives from all over the world, eagerly waiting to hear from key figures and sponsors like the museum’s Director and CEO, Thomas P. Campbell, the institute’s Curator at Large, Andrew Bolton, and Apple’s Chief Design Officer, Jonathan Ive. “The Met has always been a museum about making, and the distinctions between art and craft are carefully investigated here,” said Campbell. “In this respect, Andrew Bolton’s new exhibition fits perfectly within a museum dedicated to what, how, and why things have been created over the past 5,000 years.”
As the title suggests, this year’s theme revolves around technology within the fashion industry, and the exhibition is shown in a different wing of the museum than ever before—the Robert Lehman Wing galleries. With the use of white scrims, the ground level and first floor were transformed into a building-within-a-building, housing over 170 prized haute couture and ready-to-wear pieces from a number of reputable designers dating back to the early 1900s.
The exhibition shows visitors the impact and distinction between hand (manus) and machine (machina) construction during the onset of mass production during the beginning of the 19th century—when haute couture was founded, and when the sewing machine was invented. Each displayed garment’s unique makeup is revealed—whether it is a design done by hand, machine, or both—to show the importance that technology has had on its making, and within the fashion industry at large.
Sparking the idea for this exhibition were two dresses in particular. As Bolton explained, “The initial idea for the exhibition came about when I was looking at Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Mondrian dress from his fall 1965 couture collection in our archives. In exanimating its construction with one of our conservators, we discovered it was made almost entirely by machine. In fact, the only enhancements by hand were the hem and the zipper. Of course, it made sense that the dress was machine-sewn and not hand-sewn to achieve assemblance for the Mondrian’s legerity, but nevertheless, traditionally, the distinction between haute couture and pret-a-porter has always been between hand–made and machine-made respectably.“
The second dress was a 2014 haute couture wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, which now occupies the central station of the exhibition. Its 20-foot train was hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, machine-printed with rhinestones, and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones. With details of its embroidery projected onto the dome ceiling above, guests can reimagine the gown’s details separate from the creator, and then wander further into the surrounding fashion alcoves.
The first floor examines embroidery, featherwork, and artificial flowers, while the ground floor, architecturally designed like an enfilade, is anchored by a room that takes a closer look at tailoring and dressmaking, with neighboring sections dedicated to pleating, lacework, and leatherwork. On both we see a number of high-tech created pieces—3D printing, computer modeling, bonding and laminating, laser cutting, and ultrasonic welding—interjected between designs done by hand.
Speaking on behalf of the technological advancements that have allowed design to flourish in the fashion industry, Ive said, “In the design team at Apple, we do share some similar pre-qualifications and goals with the designers whose work you will see here today. Many of us believe in the poetic possibilities of the machine, while we have tremendous admiration for what is made by hand. Our goal has always been to try to create objects that are as beautiful as they are functional; as elegant as they are useful. Now, our physical designs are informed by our passion for materials and processes based on an experience we have gained by making things ourselves. Surprisingly, fewer and fewer designers, regardless of their particular design discipline, seem to be interested in the detail of how something is actually made. With a father who is a fabulous craftsman, I was raised with the fundamental belief that it is only when you first begin work with a material with your hands that you begin to understand true nature. It’s characteristics, its attributes, and I think very importantly, its potential. As I watch the exhibition’s narrative evolve, it is really exciting to see craftsmanship considered not only in the content of today, but also the future.”
“Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” is on view through August 14.