The Metropolitan Museum of Art Showcases Surprising Fashions Created by Hand and Machine

Karl Lagerfeld, "Wedding ensemble"
(Courtesy of CHANEL Patrimoine Collection. Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope)


In Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology (May 5 to September 5, 2016), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, extraordinary fashion designs reflected the Zeitgeist from early Industrial Age to the era of computer and digital technology. The show was premised on the notion that science, politics, modern technology, and fashion are all interrelated and mirror one another. Manus x Machina was organized by the new director of the fashion department, Andrew Bolton. It was the Met's fifth most visited show, right after last year's China: Through the Looking Glass.

Yves Saint Laurent, "Evening dress" (Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope)

In early fashion design, the sewing machine was revolutionary; today, great changes are brought by the use of laser cutting, ultrasonic welding, custom software rendering of patterns and 3D printing. As Karl Lagerfeld has said: "What keeps the Haute Couture alive is to move with the times. If it stays in an ivory tower, like Sleeping Beauty in the woods, you can forget it." Lagerfeld designed the pièce de résistance in Manus x Machina, a bridal gown for the house of Chanel (2014/15). With a train of 20 feet, fit for a Medieval princess, it is made from creamy synthetic scuba knit and printed with a slightly pixelated gold foliate pattern, based on a sketch by the designer. This filigree pattern was projected on the dome above, which formed the center of the show that occupied the two-story Robert Lehman Wing, a new location in the Met for Costume Institute shows. The galleries were conceived by Shohei Shigematsu, who leads Rem Koolhaas's New York Office for Metropolitan Architecture, in collaboration with the Met's design department. The show's soundtrack was the soothing New Age "An Ending (Ascent)," by Brian Eno, transporting the viewer into the right frame of mind in this "Cathedral of Fashion."

Karl Lagerfeld, "Wedding ensemble (back view)"
(Courtesy of CHANEL Patrimoine Collection. Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope)

Among the standouts in Manus x Machina were designs by Gareth Pugh. Hand-cut and individually attached black plastic straws recall works of art from the "Arte Povera" movement of the 60's/70's, using unconventional found materials. Other designs equally demonstrate a "clin d'oeil" to the visual arts, such as Thierry Mugler's "Neon dans la Nuit" suit. With its optical fluorescent stripes it makes the wearer look like a Vasarely painting — or a glamorous Spider Woman. Another designer, Iris van Hempen, explained, "With 3-D printing I am very much drawn to the organic." Her standout design from 2013/14 surprises with hand-stitched strips of laser-cut silicone feathers and hand-applied silicone-coated gull skulls with synthetic pearls and glass eyes. It looks like a garment straight out of Matthew Barney's "Cremaster Cycle." 

 Iris van Herpen, "Ensemble" (Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope)

In a much more minimal mode, the Miyake Design Studio — founded by Japan’s Issey Miyake in 1970 — exhibits "Rhythm Pleats," showing innovation on many levels: machine-garment-pleats, when shown off the mannequin and flat, resemble a 2-tone minimal painting. Another painterly note, this time recalling calligraphy, was provided by the Japanese desigher Junko Koshino's "Vague Dress" (1993). On top of a simple black synthetic cotton knit sits a bustier of white cotton spandex cord - a design so fresh and timeless, it would beat many a young designer's fashion of today. Hussein Chalayan's "Kaikoku" Floating Dress is the sculptural shield of a futuristic goddess. Hussein Chalayan (British, born in Cyprus) explains:

This dress is made from cast fiberglass that has been machine painted with gold metallic pigment, and hand embroidered with fifty 'pollens' created from crystals and pearled paper. The wearer enters the dress through a rear-access panel, and the entire garment, which is on wheels, is operated via remote control. Each 'pollen' is spring loaded. During a peak moment, all the pollens are released into the air and swirl around the wearer. It was intended as a poetic gesture, as the dress is meant to symbolize new beginnings.

Hussein Chalayan, "'Kaikoku' floating dress"
(Courtesy of Swarovski. Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope)

From fashion addict to computer geek, from artist to craftsman, Manus x Machina satisfied all those who thirst for the enchanting, surprising, and outlandish in fashions created by hand and machine! As in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" the creator on both ends is, after all, the best machine of all — the human brain. WM


Elga Wimmer

Elga Wimmer is a writer and the owner of Elga Wimmer Gallery, based in New York City. 

Follow Whitehot on Twitter

Follow Whitehot on Instagram 

Visit our postings and listings section

view all articles from this author