Manus x Machina incorporates elements of two distinct fashion productions. Latin for ‘hand’, manus is associated with custom-fitted or haute couture garments, versus machine-made prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear items. According to Mr. Bolton, the exhibition ‘suggests a spectrum or continuum of practice, whereby the hand and the machine are equal and mutual protagonists in solving design problems, enhancing design practices, and ultimately, advancing the future of fashion.’
Housed in the Robert Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition space has been transformed into a cathedral-domed vault with a surrounding arcade. The soothing sounds of Brian Eno’s ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ travels with you as you take in each display. The show has been organized around couture’s classic métiers, which slowly morph into modern-day breakthroughs in acrylic and silicone. Nestled between these contrasts are era-specific trends such as embroidery, pleating, feathers, and lacework.
Welcoming visitors to the exhibition is a stunningly sculpted Chanel haute couture ivory wedding gown, complete with a 20-foot cathedral train, designed by Karl Lagerfeld. Made of scuba knit – a moldable material with a surface as smooth as an egg’s shell – this Baroque-style masterpiece is lushly embellished with gold rhinestones that were attached to the train using a heat press. While the garment itself was digitally manipulated, it was hand-painted and finished with hand embroidery and hand-sewn pearls.
In stark contrast to Lagerfeld’s traditional haute couture ensemble is Hussein Chalayan’s fiberglass ‘floating dress’. Inspired by the concept of kai ko ku, translating to ‘open country’ in Japanese, Chalayan conceptualized his collection to reflect the ever-changing experience of a rapidly modernizing Eastern culture. The dress is designed with 50 Swarovski crystal pollens, equipped with the capacity to fly out from the dress by remote control.
Following the theme of tradition versus modernity, many of the garments exhibited in Manus x Machina are intended to imply a series of technological and cultural juxtapositions. A traditionalist at heart, Issey Miyake’s designs are a mix of East-meets-West, harnessing the best of both Japanese and European aesthetics. Miyake’s trademark pleats are highlighted in three vibrant technicolor pieces. The accordion-style dresses on display are showcased from their flattened to their fully extended states in bright polyester across several mannequins. These colorful designs highlight how modern clothes can be both high-tech and fashionable, uniting traditional elements of culture such as Japanese paper lamps with the advanced technology of permanently pleated polyester.
The technology behind the materials used in design, alongside the physical construction of each garment, is a prominent theme in Manus x Machina. The ‘Artificial Flowers Gallery’ showcases a range of breathtaking dresses, grouped by color, whose similarities and subsequent differences are accentuated by their richly textured decorative surfaces. The materials used, from tulle to lace, alongside the techniques used to differentiate the garments are what make each piece entirely unique.
In a similar vein, the ‘Embroidery Gallery’ features intricate ensembles of varying colors and handiwork, specifically showcasing the skill and technological advancement of embroidery as a means of embellishing a garment.
Manus x Machina is one of the Costume Institute’s most relevant fashion retrospectives, brilliantly considering the ways in which fashion and design technique have morphed to keep up with contemporary society, alongside the ways in which they capture and maintain cultural tradition. Manus x Machina will remain on display at the Met until August 14th.