The first thing one sees at the end of the pristine white entrance to Manus x Machina (MET, Costume Institute, New York through August 14th) is the extremely long train of a Chanel wedding gown. It’s a stunner and sets the tone for the entire exhibit which explores the intersection between hand and machine work in fashion through time. In the case of this piece, the gown was hand formed of a new material called “scuba knit,” sewn by machine, and finished by hand. The work on the train, a combination of silk and scuba knit, was even more intensive. The gilded design was digitally transferred from a sketch by the designer, Karl Lagerfeld. Rhinestones were added via a heat press. Gold pigment was added by hand. Then it was embroidered with pearls and gems, again by hand. This gown is our introduction to the intricacies of design today.
Though the exhibit is full of gorgeous gowns like this one, the exhibit is not about the clothes. Curator Andrew Bolton in his first show as head of the Costume Institute, makes it clear that the exhibit is about the techniques used to produce fashion—work done by hand (manus) and work done by machine (machina). Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, these techniques have been viewed as opposed to each other with handwork viewed as finer work connected with haute couture while machine work is associated with prêt-a-porter. Bolton wants this exhibit to change that view. He feels the increase in new technology has made the distinction meaningless. As Bolton puts it,“Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine-made, a new aesthetic is emerging—one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings.” The 170 garments on view in the Robert Lehman Galleries certainly prove his point. The definition of embroidery is “needlework that adorns woven or knitted textiles,” which is a good technical description, but does not do justice to the the directions centuries of artisians have developed these stitches that really can be placed in three categories–looped, flat, and knotted. A trapeze dress from 1958 by Yves St Laurent that gains its shape from 5 layers of machine sewn tulle hand embroidered with crystals is set alone. Across from it are displayed a gown by Dior from the 1950s that shimmers with silver petals of tulle. On the same platform is the work of contemporary designer Iris Herpen which used iron fillings and polyester resin to build up a sculpted surface on the huge sleeves of a short evening dress. For many of us whose experience with embroidered garments might only include a peasant blouse, the sight of these pieces is a revelation.
Featherwork is a another skill often overlooked by the public since the conservation laws of the early 20th Century restricted the hunting of birds that adorned the huge hats of the Edwardian era. But featherwork is still an important component in the creation of fashion. The plumes have to be washed, dried, sorted, and, possibly, dyed. Then, they must be shaped and grouped to build the plume up. Often, the feathers will be curled and shaped. This work can produce garments that have an otherworldly quality. Technology has made it possible for modern designers to use “feathers” of manmade materials like silicone. One dress in this section was especially interesting to me. It is a YSL dress from 1969-70 covered in bird of paradise feathers, a now extinct bird who was hunted to death for fashion. One can certainly see how the bird’s beautiful light gold feathers made it so desirable.
Flowers are another old embellishment. The molds that shape them are stamped by machine now. The possibilities are endless from the delicacy of a Lanvin robe de style to bold contemporary garments with layers of built-up petals.
The upstairs galleries also include a section on draping of toiles, which also gives a brief history of the development of the mannequin. Display of half toiles and full ones give an insight into the designing process.
Downstairs there are sections on lacework, leatherwork, tailoring and, my favorite, pleating. I thought it was a brilliant stroke to display the pieces by Issey Miyake spread out flat one side to the gallery and mounted on a mannequins on the other side. I could really see how the body shaped the pieces and how the pleating formed an outer shell around the body. These garments were designed with the aid of a computer, another example of the increasing combination of the machine.
This exhibit was a pleasure to walk through, which made it quite different from year’s China: Through the Looking Glass, which was set in the Asian galleries. It was a sprawling exhibit with the garments mounted amid the artwork. There was many, many themes as befit the huge topic—blue and white china, Mao, court robes, Anna May Wong—and that is only a few! It was gorgeous, but could be exhausting to view. This exhibit was more pristine. The Lehman galleries were covered in while scrim which made the garment stand out like jewels. The galleries have plenty of space too, so I didn’t feel crowded. There’s plenty of room to walk around and enjoy. When I first saw the exhibit, I wished there were videos that showed how the work was done.
Then, I remembered how the visitors tend to crowded around the videos and clog up the show. Videos that were in this exhibit were small and spare. This presentation made it possible to focus on the clothes. It was easy to see the work itself. One could contemplate the words of Andrew Bolton, “Through the marriage of the handmade and the machine-made, a new aesthetic is emerging—one of exacting beauty and unfettered imaginings.” It’s exciting to dream about what’s next.
Nadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews
Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »