- Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology by Metropolitan Museum of Art
In its riveting exhibit Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a feast for the eyes. On view from 5 May to 5 September 2016, it featured dramatically contrasting fashions: exquisite, custom-made haute couture dresses delicately hand embroidered and encrusted with sequins and crystals displayed right next to today’s designs created using the latest in technological processes and materials, including 3-D printing and ultrasonic welding. There were innovative dresses ornamented with laser-cut silicone strips and even a remote-controlled dress that spread its metal-plated skirt open, adding a kinetic component to its design.
The show’s title, Manus x Machina, referred to fashions made by hand and by machine, and the “x” in the title, explained the exhibit’s curator Andrew Bolton, is a multiplication symbol signifying that the hand and the machine are not “oppositional” but “equal and mutual protagonists in solving design problems.” Bolton’s show’s title, as explained in his exhibit catalog essay, was inspired by the epigraph in German director Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis: “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART.” “Given Lang’s dystopian vision of technology,” said Bolton, the epigraph “could quite easily have been rephrased, ‘The Mediator between the HAND and the MACHINE must be the HEART.’” Though handmade and machine-made were in an oppositional relationship starting with the Industrial Revolution, in today’s world of fashion there is more often a type of hybridity, so that “both the hand and the machine are [End Page 257] rarely absent from the act of fashion creation.” Together, they help “create fashions of exceptional originality and outstanding technical ingenuity.”1
The exhibit brought together haute couture designs—often elaborate fashions specifically tailored for a particular body and produced in limited quantities—and prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) fashions produced in standardized sizes in greater quantities. The exhibit’s catalog and wall labels argued that with the rise of mechanization and industrial production methods, manufacturers in the late nineteenth century were mass-producing prêt-à-porter clothing. In the face of modern technological developments, however, haute couture fashion houses maintained their stature by continuing to use hand skills for embellishment and finishing. Still, as Bolton points out, the official designation “haute couture” in France coincided with the development of the sewing machine in the nineteenth century, and haute couture fashion houses that needed to produce large quantities of clothing for both women and men often utilized sewing machines for economy and efficiency.
What made this exhibit so fascinating, however, was not the story it told almost in passing about production methods but the astonishing aura it created. It was masterfully designed to evoke a quasireligious experience, as though ushering the visitor into a fashion house of worship for the digital age. The air was filled with the soaring strains of Brian Eno’s electronic music (sardonically entitled “Music for Airports”), which could be overheard throughout the galleries, and overhead was a high domed ceiling complete with a circular skylight resembling an oculus in Roman temples or Byzantine architecture.
The highlight of the show was seen immediately on entry through an arched doorway: a regal, cream-colored wedding ensemble designed in 2014–15 by Karl Lagerfeld for the House of Chanel with an astonishing twenty-foot train made of satin and scuba knit (a synthetic fabric resembling neoprene). Its train and decorative medallion were opulently hand-embroidered with glass and pearls, and machine-printed with rhinestones, and the dress’s train pattern was electronically projected onto the domed ceiling above the dress. Speaking in hushed voices, visitors bent down to look at the decoration closely as though they were examining an icon.
Most of the other 170 fashions in the exhibit were a product of both hand and machine, although there were also extreme exceptions. A prêt-à-porter dress by British designer Thom Browne was entirely machine made, its...