NEW YORK—”In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, and the individual,” said French designer Christian Dior.
The extent to which this is still true is the subject of Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, the exhibition that opened May 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Curator Andrew Bolton explained that the inspiration for the show came while he was was examining Yves Saint Laurent’s famous 1965 “Mondrian” dress, which reflected the linear designs of the painter.
“We discovered it was made almost entirely by machine,” he said.
This seemed to go against the traditional distinction between haute couture and prêt-à-porter—a distinction between the handmade and the machine-made or ready-to-wear.
“Traditionally the hand has been identified with exclusivity, spontaneity, and individuality, yet ultimately representative of elitism, the cult of personality, and a detrimental nostalgia for past craftsmanship,” explained Bolton, while the machine has been associated with progress, mass production, inferior quality, dehumanization, and homogenization.
He hopes to “liberate the handmade and the machine-made from their usual confines” and show that the pieces on show are merely at various points on the “manus-machina continuum,” increasingly falling somewhere in the middle, where designers are happy to combine the hand and the machine to fulfill their creative visions.
Case in point is the exhibition’s reigning centerpiece—the wedding gown by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel’s 2014 couture collection with a massive golden train, which he described as “haute couture without the couture.”
For Bolton, it exemplifies the best sort of hand–machine fusion.
Seemingly baroque, it is made of a synthetic fabric called scuba knit, which was hand-molded, machine-sewn, and then hand-finished; covered in intricate embroidery of pearls and gemstones. The massive pattern was hand-drawn, then computer manipulated, to give it a randomized, pixelated feel. The machine aids in the realization of tried and true forms.
Craft Versus Design
Given that the manufacturing of textiles on a wooden loom is one of the oldest of human technologies, Bolton’s point is rather moot. What remains of the argument is restricted to the confines of the distinction between haute couture and the prêt-à-porter garments as dictated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which bestows the label of Haute Couture on the fashion houses that abide by its handwork regulations.
In the context of haute couture and prêt-à-porter, the exhibition’s message is akin to a newsflash that is broadcasting decades old news. But Bolton is optimistic of unrealized possibilities.
“Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine-made, a new aesthetic is emerging—one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings,” concluded Bolton in his opening remarks.
While showcasing the most elaborate examples to prove the point that the hand and the machine are equal protagonists in the design and production process, the exhibition also inadvertently highlights the fact that even though technology has brought new materials and processes to fashion design, designers have almost always translated these into new types of fabrics, or new types of embellishment, rather than a truly new design aesthetic per se.
How has technology aided designers’ creation of the human, the personal, and the individual?
Iris van Herpen’s silicone feathers and 3-D-printed haute couture pieces epitomize technological advancement. They do away with the sewing machine and demonstrate the ease with which designers can now create new structures.
Her theatrical pieces, such as the dark orange epoxy dress, are evocative of natural patterns while being totally new; yet the silhouette is easily recognizable and the overall design reads like an elaborate, albeit high-tech, bustier.
Along the same lines is threeASFOUR’s Interdimensional Dress (spring/summer 2016, prêt-à-porter) in white neoprene and nude nylon mesh with hand appliqué of 3-D printed resin and nylon. For all its high-tech embellishments, the dress’s design is still firmly within the confines of a basic dress pattern.
It is perhaps in Issey Miyake’s Rhythm Pleats collection that we glimpse the possibility of a totally new aesthetic. There are three pieces from the designer’s spring/summer 1990, prêt-à-porter collection that uses machine-pleated, machine-sewn yellow and red-purple polyester-linen plain weave. They are shown on mannequins and also laid out flat opposite.
This is quite an eye-opener.
When flat, each design looks like a simple geometric piece—a circle, a rectangle, and another circle. Yet when each garment envelops the body, the pleated geometrical modules take on sculptural dimensions that are in harmony with it.
They neither overwhelm the body for the sake of the artistic statement, nor objectify its parts. It simply, quietly glorifies it in such a way as to preserve elegance, and ease of movement.
In a way, Miyake picked up where French designer Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975) left off when she realized the great potential of the bias cut. And before Vionnet there were the ancient Greeks who exploited the simplicity of a rectangular piece of cloth, which, depending on its amplitude, would fall on the bias when wrapped around the body, resulting in the sculptural folds artists have so often depicted in marble.
Tools of Intricacy
The exhibit covers fashions from the late 19th century to the present, and is set out in groupings that reflect the metiers, or trades, outlined in Diderot’s “Encyclopedia “(Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, 1751–1772), which remain at the center of haute couture today.
To this end, the first floor gallery showcases the metiers of embroidery, featherwork, and artificial flowers, while the ground floor examines pleating, lacework, and leatherwork.
Among the mind-boggling pieces on show that are totally handmade is an Irish wedding dress dated circa 1870 (dressmaker unknown). It is a cascade of hand-crocheted cream cotton lace with three-dimensional flowers, leaves, and berries. Equally showstopping is another of Karl Lagerfeld’s haute couture wedding ensembles for Chanel (autumn/winter 2005–2006) covered in 2,500 handmade camellias and white ostrich feathers. The flowers and featherwork are the work of Maison Lemarié, one among a few ateliers de métiers (craft studios) supported by the great couture fashion houses so as to preserve the know-how of handmade techniques.
It is safe to say that most designers already consider both the hand and the machine as tools, as the means to achieve their design aims. But this has not changed since the invention of the loom—way before the term “fashion designer” was coined. For thousands of years people throughout various cultures have been weaving fabrics and fashioning them to suit their clothing needs.
One hopes that the unfettered imaginings, coupled with the new digital tools to realize them, will not resemble a landscape ravaged by Pandora’s box. While designers would be adamant they haven’t left hope out of their creations, at times we lose sight of the human body, and it becomes increasingly easy to do so with our overflowing box of tools.
Manus x Machina might serve as an opportune time to reconsider the beauty, perfection, and sacredness of the human body. After all, the body is not about to go out of fashion, and it has always been more than a structure on which to hang a political statement, or a living doll waiting to be engulfed by exquisite embellishment.
Whether sewn by hand or embellished by machine, perhaps it’s time to declutter our design toolbox and re-examine the values that we as a civilization wish to communicate through our arts and crafts.