Now that the movie stars, musicians, moguls and paparazzi have moved on to other red carpets, “Manus x Machina” at The Met’s Costume Institute is waiting to dazzle, challenge and surprise both the fashion cognoscenti and those who just love a good show. And “Manus x Machina” is an extraordinary show on many levels; exquisite designs and craftsmanship join with wildly inventive visions ensconced in a breathtaking installation (a hallmark of recent Costume Institute exhibitions).
Passing through the medieval galleries, with their soaring ceilings and hushed, religious overtones brings visitors to the Robert Lehman Wing, which the Costume Institute is filling for the first time. The space may not be immediately recognizable, as it’s been completely transformed by a cocoon of scaffolding and white scrim, creating halls and alcoves, apses and altars on which to present stunning examples of what human imagination can produce, whether by hand or machine.
Soothing, hymn-like sounds from Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent),” slow the pace and add an almost spiritual element to a “Wedding Ensemble” by Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel (2014–15), the centerpiece of the exhibition. It’s placed on a pedestal, under a towering dome onto which details of digitally produced golden embroidery are projected. The train of the dress extends seemingly forever, and the heavenly voices surrounding it call to mind a slow, regal march of the greatest import. No doubt, it’s a spectacular dress, but the staging elevates it to an otherworldly level.
Surrounding it, in cases, are various pages from one of fashion’s sacred writs, the one that inspired the exhibition. “Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts,” written by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert between 1751 and 1772, had the audacity and prescience to suggest that dressmaking belonged in the same realms as the other arts and sciences. Just as the book divided the craft into separate fields of expertise, the exhibition is broken into six sections. Embroidery, featherwork and floral treatments are explored on the upper floor. Pleating, lacework, leather and even more experimental techniques like 3-D printing, melting and lasers are found in the galleries downstairs.
Curator Andrew Bolton described looking at a particular couture dress and realizing that every part of it was done by machine, save the hemming and the sewing of the zipper. It brought home that the idea of the handmade being somehow more desirable, more valuable and more important than a machine-made counterpart was no longer true. “Manus x Machina” sets out, he said, to “debunk and demystify” this hierarchy by presenting works from the past century, both hand and machine crafted.
Bolton contends that artists make use of whatever tool best enables them to achieve their creative vision. While he pointed out that “human hands are great machines,” new technologies, like laser cutting, make previously unattainable visions possible.
A dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen (2012) is encrusted with shells, pearls and coral, all sewn by hand. “It took days and days to finish,” the wall text tells us. It’s paired with a Givenchy evening dress (1963) in deep orange, but a more interesting contrast is with Iris van Herpen’s 3-D-printed epoxy dress (2012) on the lower floor. Both Burton’s and van Herpen’s dresses cover the torso with jutting shapes in red-orange. Burton’s is hand-stitched by seamstresses in India, while van Herpen’s, the wall texts explain, “was built layer by layer in a vessel of liquid polymer. The polymer hardens when struck by a laser beam.” Manus x Machina in a nutshell.
Van Herpen is the creator of some of the most dazzling, mind-bending designs in an exhibition where plastic exoskeletons and fractal progressions are as common as feathers and sequins. Hussein Chalayan’s “Kaikoku” floating dress (2011–12) is a gold-painted shell of polyester resin. It has an opening in the back, and the wearer steps in and onto a motorized, wheeled platform that glides the creation across the floor. If desired, 50 crystals can be electronically jettisoned; they fall to the floor like maple tree seed pods. A video displays the process/performance. Issey Miyake’s pleated constructions may use technology but without touting their high-tech roots. They recall the pleated garments of ancient Egypt as well as simple, colorful paper lanterns. They’re playful and cheerful, and at the same time wonders of technique.
Whether your tastes run more to space-age or timeless fashions, all garments are a mixture of man and machine. A scissor in a hand: man and machine. It’s a bit hard to believe, but intriguing and delightful to see, the extremes of both elegance and inventiveness presented in The Met’s latest temple to fashion.