Last month, I flew to New York for nearly a week with my boyfriend. Naturally, visiting the Met was on our must-do list (as in, not even an option to skip it). It was the “Manus X Machina” fashion exhibition that had sparked my excitement. What could be better than perusing hallways of couture dresses on a Saturday afternoon in Manhattan? Nothing! And so we sped over from the Guggenheim, pushing our way through the thick throngs of tourists, and made our way inside. To my dismay, we realized we’d made it there later than expected—the museum was closing in only thirty minutes! (Naturally, I didn’t get my fill in just thirty minutes. I carved out three hours the next day to resume my ogling.) I rushed to the entrance of the exhibit I’d been reading about for weeks, and saw that it was nearly empty. What a rare opportunity, to stroll through a museum utterly undisturbed and uninterrupted. I made a point to savor it.
I began my accelerated journey through the massive archive of dresses (more than 170 in total). The first gown set the mood for the entire exhibit: a Chanel masterpiece from 2014 that expressed an ethereal fusion of handmade and machine-made. The dress, made of scuba knit, was painted with gold metallic pigment, machine-printed with rhinestones, and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones. It was stunning to say the least. To heighten it all, pensive music echoes throughout, and magnified images of the dress are cast onto the ceiling. It’s a full-body experience from the moment you arrive.
After gawking at the gown for several minutes, I began reading about the exhibit in depth. I knew that “Manus X Machina” would explore the relationship between fashion and technology—a timely subject to dissect—but I didn’t know much more. It turns out that “Manus X Machina” was inspired by Denis Diderot’s 1751 Encyclopedia, The Arts, Sciences and Crafts. In it, he placed dressmaking and manual labor on the same pedestal as the arts and sciences. It was the first time that laborious skills like embroidery, feather-work, and tailoring had been regarded as equal in status to other fields. “Manus X Machina” investigates the evolution of dressmaking through the centuries, and highlights the growing role of technology in haute couture. The juxtaposition is enticing; an invitation to envision what the future of fashion may be.
As I moved through the exhibit, I was nearly moved to tears. I’ve loved fashion my whole life, but it hasn’t been until the last few years that I’ve begun to truly grasp why. It was incredible to stand inches away from these dresses, exquisite creations from Prada, Dior, Chanel and more. I was simply awestruck by the effort that went into producing each one, each plaque describing the meticulous methods by which it was made. Most pieces were a blend of handmade and machine-made, the first floor showcasing primarily embroidery. One of my favorites was a trapeze dress (pictured above), nicknamed “Eléphant Blanc,” by Dior in 1958.
While some dresses erred towards traditional (this is couture after all), others were thrilling unconventional. Those of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen were were particularly fascinating. Known for her sculptural work, the exhibit featured a dress made of laser-cut nude silicone feathers and and silicone-coated bird skulls. Equally compelling was Hussein Chalayan’s remote controlled “Floating Dress.” Loaded with 50 spring loaded “pollens,” they eject from the dress via remote control and swirl into the air above the wearer. Another dress of interest to me was crafted entirely from straws, hand cut by designer Gareth Pugh. Imagine the sound of it clattering down the runway!
Each portion of “Manus X Machina” expresses a theme, like tailoring, pleating, or leather-work. There was so much to absorb, I could have easily spent an entire day roaming the exhibit. I found myself moving so slowly that the revelation of an uncharted lower gallery was totally overwhelming. Nonetheless, I made it downstairs, where I was captivated by a row of Chanel suits. Pictured on the left is a machine-sewn suit in classic ivory wool bouclé tweed produced between 1963–1968. The three suits on the right are 3D-printed with hand stitched crystals and hand-embroidered with gold synthetic sequins. Said Lagerfeld of his designs, “The idea is to take the most iconic jacket of the 20th century and make a 21st century version, which technically was unimaginable in the period when it was born.” Yeah, mission accomplished.
My one issue with the exhibit is its lack of emphasis on sustainability: a significant and growing sector of the apparel industry. Certainly there must be some level of sustainable innovation in couture, where cutting-edge technologies like 3D printing have been embraced. (And if there isn’t, why not?) Reputable designers from Stella McCartney to Vivienne Westwood have taken firm stances on ethical fashion in one respect or another. Emma Watson even wore a dress by Calvin Klein made of recycled plastic bottles to the Met Gala this year! If the goal of the exhibit is to reaffirm fashion’s importance and meaning in a modern context, then why not advocate ethical design, arguably the most relevant development in fashion today? From my vantage point, incorporating sustainability, whether it be through ecological textiles or up-cycling, would have done more to ignite a substantial conversation about fashion’s future.
So, this oversight aside, it was a spectacular experience. “Manus X Machina” deftly unveils the expertise and ingenuity involved in couture, a seemingly inaccessible realm of the industry. I highly recommend seeing it. Just be sure you make it there before 5:30 PM.
Photos: Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art