The Met’s New Tech Exhibit Is Really About Craft

Hussein Chalayan’s Floating Dress in “Manus x Machina.” Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope

The centerpiece of the Costume Institute’s new exhibit “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” is a Chanel couture wedding gown with a seemingly endless embroidered and rhinestone-flecked train. It’s housed in a white domed structure almost like a cathedral, right at the entrance, and there was a fittingly reverent hush as the first visitors entered at this morning’s preview. Even up close, it’s hard to fathom the 450 hours of work that went into this kind of stupefying piece. More surprising: It’s actually the work of both hand and machine; Karl Lagerfeld hand-drew the design, which was then transferred to a computer.

“Manus x Machina” has been incorrectly reported on in some quarters as an exploration of technology versus handcraft, but in fact, the show’s curator, Andrew Bolton, sees it more as a spectrum, or a continuum. Many of the items in the show combine both processes, like a 3-D-printed version of the classic Chanel suit that also features hand-stitched crystals and Lesage hand embroideries.

And by isolating key motifs like plumasserie — the application of feathers — or pleating, Bolton shows us how they’ve been used across decades and sometimes centuries, and the combination of handwork and machine-made elements that have gone into them. It’s striking to see Dior gowns from the 1940s right next to an Alexander McQueen dress that only dates as far back as the Sarah Burton era and realize how similar the craftsmanship looks. Or to see how much Fortuny’s pleated designs informed the later ones of Mary McFadden, who was on hand at the preview. Standing in front of a dissection of one of Charles James’s designs, one non-fashion person told me he’d never thought so much about the mechanics of producing clothes as he had over the last 45 minutes.

Bolton said he was inspired to create the exhibit by a close look at Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress, an iconic couture piece. “We discovered that it was almost entirely made by machine,” except for the zipper and the hem, he said, a fact that surprised him because “the Chambre Syndicale [couture’s governing body] specifies handwork requirements in its regulations.” As couture and ready-to-wear become more indistinguishable — think of the athleisure couture that dominated recent seasons — those lines have blurred even further.

The show eschews the kitschier, wearable-tech aspects of this theme, thankfully — despite the Apple sponsorship and the presence of Jony Ive, there was not a gadget in sight, other than small, subtly placed projectors showing video footage of runway shows.  Instead, it focuses on the continuation of craftsmanship, providing context for pieces like Iris van Herpen’s 3-D-printed couture as an extension of Madame Grès’s own experiments. Or the wonderful flights of fancy expressed in 3-D pieces by young Israeli designer Noa Raviv.

The fashion Establishment can be a bit leery of tech-y design (and we’re collectively pretty burned out on wearables) but as Met director Thomas Campbell pointed out in his remarks this morning, even the needle was once considered a piece of bleeding-edge technology. “Manus x Machina” left me feeling that, in fashion, there is nothing new under the sun, just different ways to create. I mean that in the best possible way.

The Met’s New Tech Exhibit Is Really About Craft