Wednesday, May 11, 2016

MANUS X MACHINA: Fashion in the Age of Technology

Last week, we attended the press preview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute's newest exhibition MANUS x MACHINA - FASHION IN THE AGE OF TECHNOLOGY on the morning of the day of the red carpet gala.

Andrew Bolton, Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, who took up the reins after Harold Koda retired last year, has mounted the show which features exceptional fashions that reconcile traditional hand techniques with innovative machine technologies such as 3-D printing, laser cutting, circular knitting, computer modeling, bonding and laminating, and ultrasonic welding.

The exhibition opens with a Chanel bridal gown whose train alone, bedizened with countless Swarovski crystals, takes up most of the very large entrance hall.

In contrast to the mind boggling train, the design of the dress itself is classical, spare and simple, no doubt to heighten the surprise of viewers, slowly absorbing the pageantry of the bride as she passes.   Your eyes do not deceive you - that is our friend Judith, The Style Crone, between us.

The show features ninety astonishing pieces ranging from Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's iconic tweed suit to Karl Lagerfeld's 3-D-printed version. We often play a game at exhibitions called "If I could pick one thing, what would it be?" Jean's selection, hands down, is Thierry Mugler's A/W 1990-91 pret-a-porter "NEON DANS LA NUIT" suit. Made of machine-sewn black silk velvet, hand-embroidered with optical fluorescent stripes, the jacket and skirt's trim glows in the flash of the camera.

Exhibit categories are delineated by method. For example, PLEATING clearly demonstrates major changes in processes over time. Case in point (below), Spanish designer Marion Fortuny's 1930's haute couture gown made of hand-pleated and hand-sewn red-purple silk charmeuse, hand-embroidered with Venetian glass beads.

Mary McFadden's 1986 gown continues the pleating tradition while updating both fabrication and method of creation. Her machine-sewn and "Marii" machine-pleated green polyester charmeuse gown has hand-applied gold metallic passementerie.

The Miyake Design Studio, founded in 1970, is world famous for further automating the pleating process. This "RHYTHM PLEATS" gown, from Japanese designer Issey Miyake's S/S 1990 pret-a-porter collection, is machine-garment-pleated, machine-sewn yellow and red-purple polyester-linen plain weave. While it looks so three dimensional on the body, off the body, it is a flat rectangle.

In the "If I could pick one thing" game, this is what Valerie would probably wind up picking.  You have to look really carefully, but you might be able to see that she's wearing a scale model copy of the dress as a necklace.  (Try double clicking.)

In its time, this dress design was considered so innovative that the Museum felt it necessary to show it in three stages - from  left to right, its flat storage look to its on-the-body look.

Also in the Pleats section was this oversized ruff by Comme des Garcons, large enough to extend to the elbows, reminiscent of the starchy ruffs worn by the Dutch, but taken to the requisite edgy CDG extreme.

Among the most exotic examples of machine-made attire is Hussein Chalayan's S/S 2009 pret-a-porter dress. It is made of white polyurethane foam, hand-painted and airbrushed with green, blue, brown, black and red crushed automobile imagery.

Dutch designer Iris van Herpen's 3-D-printed silicone designs were arguably the most avant-garde, and certainly the most diverse, incorporating futuristic methods and techniques. From her Autumn 2012 haute couture collection, this 3-D-printed (stereolithography) dress of dark orange epoxy by Materialise is hand-sanded and hand-sprayed with a transparent resin. We both had the same reaction to this amazing dress, agreeing that while it is absolutely beautiful, it would be impossible to sit down or lie down in. If someone were to wear it to the gala that evening, they'd have to walk all the way from their hotel to the museum, remain standing all night and walk back or shed this amazing armature afterward.  But it would be so worth it!

We had to show you another of Iris's stunning creations. It's easy to see the source of her inspiration, to which Herpen has puckishly added a vestigial tailbone.  The label reads (in part) 3-D-printed (selective laser sintering) white polyamide.

And finally, one last Iris creation, this one made of patent leather.  The detail work, all done by laser, is extraordinary.

Flowers was another major theme.  The shape of Hussein Chalayan's "DUCK" Dress from his S/S 2000 pret-a-porter collection resembles the bird's upturned tail. The combination of humor and exquisite tailoring makes for an outrageously gorgeous gown. It is machine-sewn pink polyester tulle, hand-gathered and sculpted into tufts and machine-stitched to pink cotton twill.

In an amazing 180° turnaround, Chalayan also made this dress, labeled as "cast fiberglass painted with gold metallic pigment, hung with Swarovski crystal and pearl paper "pollens," rear-entry panels with motorized hinges, radio-controlled digital handset".

One thing we really liked about the exhibition was the way it bounced back and forth between the past and the present, showing old and new techniques, comparing and contrasting hand work and machine work.  We were reminded during the press briefing that some techniques we consider to be old news were, in their time, hailed as innovations.   This court presentation dress by Boue Soeurs, dated 1928, was made with a melange of hand- and machine-work.

We have to show you some of the detail work to give you an inkling of the amount of labor that went into deceptively complicated dress.  The label reads, in part, "hand-sewn ivory silk tulle, machine-embroidered with couched silver cord... metal lame with machine-picot edging; hand-appliqued with hand-embroidered white silk tulle with artificial flowers..."

But back to Chalayan for a moment.  Yet another extraordinary Chalayan dress was this post-Jetsons creation, which echoes the shape of the Dior suit on the left, and its material concept from the Paco Rabanne dress on the right, and is able to express both shapes with motorized panels.  Don't believe us?  Watch this video from 3:05 to 3:35 and see the dress - and a hat - metamorphose before your eyes.

Christian Dior's AW 1949-50 haute couture "JUNON" gown for House of Dior has a machine-sewn, hand-finished pale green silk faille and taffeta foundation, hand-sewn pale blue silk tulle embroidered with opalescent sequins, hand-appliqued with forty-five hand-cut pale blue silk tulle and horsehair petals, hand-embroidered with opalescent blue, green, and orange gelatin sequins.  It faced its mirror image, with lighter sequins.

Perhaps the most wonderfully unexpected is this dress by American designer Thom Browne, better known for his menswear line. Made of laser-cut white ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam, it is from his SS 2013 pret-a-porter collection.

This was juxtaposed against a Paul Poiret coat dated 1919.  The two white panels down the front are 'hand-appliqued' 'kidskin cutwork'.  Cutwork existed before the use of lasers in fashion, but in Poiret's time each individual cut had to be made by expert hands.

In the spirit of upcycling, we had to show you this Gareth Pugh dress, which the label tells us is created from transparent drinking straws.


Judith Boyd, aka Style Crone, in town from Denver for the Advanced Style: Older and Wiser book launch and for a number of get-togethers with friends, joined us for the press preview. Her striking red velvet turban is by Schiaparelli; Valerie's pale green straw boater is from her trip decades ago to Printemps in Paris; and Jean's straw hat by Ignatius Hats is from last November's Philadelphia Museum of Art's Craft Show.

We got a brief glimpse of Vogue edtior Anna Wintour in a lovely colorful dress, and without her trademark sunglasses, before we were shooed away by a very zealous person.  At left is Met Director Thomas Campbell.

Thom Browne, instantly recognizable for his fitted high-water pants and sock-less look, made an appearance at the press preview. Just the day before, The New York Times' Sunday Style Section featured an article about how Thom and the show's curator, Andrew Bolton, spend their Sundays. Click here for  the story. (Spoiler alert:  they've been a couple for five years and devote much of their Sunday -- and, actually every day -- to spoiling Hector, their little wire-haired dachshund. )  Fashion note: both were wearing the high pants hem look you see here.

Legendary designer Mary McFadden, whose iconic pleated designs appear in the show, was seated just two rows in front of us at the press conference.

TV fashion personality Joe Zee was also in the crowd for the press conference. When we emerged later after the show,  he was on camera in front of his video crew, reporting about the show.

Our pal, Gay City News writer David Noh, got into the act, combining a machine-made silver lame shirt with a cowboy hat and American flag scarf.

Before and during the welcoming remarks, we couldn't take our eyes off this woman's wonderful Comme des Garcons checked jacket with humongous 3D roses.  (Yes, they're on the back, too.)

Canny designers working in new technology brought and wore their own designs to show off.  Alisha Trimble is flanked by two models wearing her designs.

This young woman wears a design of her own.  The glossy silver material, laser-cut (we think) into diamond shapes, lies flat, but moves beautifully with the wearer's body.

But for us, the show stopper, the item-that-wasn't-in-the-show-but-should-have-been, was Maiko Takeda's headpiece.

As outrageous fortune would have it, we just happened to be there as Takeda took the soft, lightweight jumble of prongs from her hand and slipped it over her head as easily as if it had been a plastic rain bonnet taken from her pocket.  Takeda's name is listed in the Met credits as a contributor.  We took the liberty of looking up her name to discover a stellar background: Takeda is a graduate of Central Saint Martin's, which seems to be graduating all the interesting designers these days, she has worked for both Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy, and is now designing accessories for Issey Miyake.

All in all, we were dazzled, and hope you have a chance to see this show.


  1. I too, am dazzled by the photos, so I can't imagine how fabulous this is to see in person. What a cool concept for an exhibit! I LOVE Iris van Herpen's designs (she may have been the designer of the black patent leather costumes from the Dance and Fashion Exhibit at FIT two years ago). It would be so fun to be able to wear the drinking straw coat or the Paul Poiret one out for a night.

  2. thank you for sharing amazing fashion

  3. To Jean and Valerie from Joan Barrett - I am so jealous you saw this wonderful exhibit on the CRAFT of couture and ready-to-wear. Is it worth it to buy the limited edition book? I don't think I can get to NYC before August. By the way Mary McFadden lives in my old NYC apt building and I chatted with her several times. I have always loved her clothes.
    From the 416

  4. Your review of the MET exhibit is exquisite. Your photos and detailed commentary have me enthralled. Thank you for the mention in your post and I was very honored to attend with you. It was one of the highlights of my life!

  5. Jean and Valerie, I love how you ladies described this wonderful exhibit in a way that makes me, the reader, feel as if I was there with you. I'm very fond of Thom Browne's white laser cut dress from his SS 13 collection, as it reminds me of our intricate Kenneth Jay Lane carved earrings.