August 02, 2016

"Manus x Machina" @ The Met Fifth Avenue

One of the most eagerly anticipated events on the New York social calendar is the annual Met Gala where glitterati from the worlds of fashion and entertainment gather to officially open The Costume Institute's spring/summer exhibition.  This year the theme was "Manus x Machina:  Fashion in an Age of Technology" and the show has been such a success that it was extended until Labor Day.  Not wanting to get caught in a mad crush at the end of the run, I took advantage of an overcast Monday to head over to Fifth Avenue and check out the sartorial splendor on display.

Karl Lagerfeld/House of Chanel
Wedding Ensemble, Autumn/Winter 2014/15, Haute Couture
Scuba knit dress with gold, glass, crystal and leather trimmings
Scuba knit and silk satin train with rhinestones and pearls on a gold metallic pigment

"Manus x Machina" explores the differences between haute couture (clothing custom made for an individual) and prêt-à-porter (mass produced, ready-to-wear garments) through the dichotomy of hand-made (Manus) versus machine-made (Machina).  Traditionally, hand-made symbolized better quality, more exclusive and personalized while machine-made implied cheaper, more ordinary and industrial.  But in fact, as the exhibition demonstrates, couture has always relied on an element of the machine-made, and with advancements in technology and techniques, off-the-rack clothing has become more sophisticated and desirable.

Installed on two floors in The Met's Lehman Wing, "Manus x Machina" presents hand-made and machine-made, haute couture and prêt-à-porter, garments side-by side.  With white scrim walls and ceilings creating a cathedral effect, and an ever present sound track that one lady commented sounded like the funeral was about to begin, visitors explore the differences, similarities and convergence of these two methods with about 170 fabulous examples on view.

"Junon" and "Venus", House of Dior, 1949, haute couture
Machine sewn and hand finished foundation gown topped with
Gelatin and opalescent sequins hand-embroidered onto silk tulle
The exhibition is arranged according to embellishment technique, with Broderie (Embroidery) as the start.  Broderie, or the application of sequins, feathers, flowers or other adornment onto a garment's fabric, was traditionally done by hand using sewn stitches.  With the advent of acetates, synthetic fabrics and thermoplastic film, details can now be added by machine or simply ironed on.

Sequined dresses by Louis Vuitton, 2016, prêt-à-porter
Laser-cut silver metallic sequins machine glued onto tulle and air-brushed

Other examples of sewn-on decoration includes feathers, like this gorgeous pink silk haute couture evening dress by Balenciaga, 1965...

and its modern day counterpart, the "Straw Dress" by Gareth Pugh, from his 2016 couture collection.  Each black plastic drinking straw in cut and hand embroidered onto a black mesh overlay.

Artificial flowers have always been a popular decoration and the creation of fabric flowers is a painstaking and highly skilled process.  New machinery allows floral garnishes to be stamped and shaped with greater ease and new materials give a wider variety of effects.

 Court presentation ensemble by Boué Soeurs, 1928, haute couture
Silk tulle gown machine embroidered with silver cord
and hand-appliqued with artificial flowers and ribbons

Dress from the 2012 Louis Vuitton prêt-à-porter collection
Silk and polyester organza dress
Hand-embroidered with laser-cut plastic flowers

 Wedding Ensemble by Yves Saint Laurent, 1999, prêt-à-porter
Hand-made silk flowers with a machine-sewn silk train

Another important embellishment technique is pleating.  With the invention of the paper mold for fan production in 1760, pleating became a stylish option in garment design.  In the beginning the pleats could become flattened and patrons often had to return gowns to the fashion house to have the pleats reset.  

 Three evening gowns by Mariano Fortuny, circa 1930s, haute couture
Hand-pleated, hand-sewn and hand-embroidered embellishments

Later developments in synthetic fabrics and pleating technology resulted in permanently pleated or crinkled garments.

"Flying Saucer Dress" by Miyake Design Studio, 1994 prêt-à-porter
Machine-garment pleated and machine-sewn polyester

Popular since the middle ages is the art of Dentellerie, or Lacework, with hand-made lace being a costly and status conferring adornment for the well-to-do.  Because of the time and labor involved in making lace, industrialists developed machines to create high quality lace at a fraction of the cost and machine-made lace is used almost exclusively in both haute couture and prêt-à-porter collections.

Evening dress by Balenciaga, 1965, haute couture
Machine made lace with hand sewn fabric ruffles

A very contemporary example of lace couture is this creation by Iris van Herpen who used a combination of 3-D printing (stereolithography) and lasers, combined with hand sanding and spraying to achieve this resin dress in 2012.  I'm not sure how practical it is to wear, but it looks fantastic!

One more decorative technique is Maroquinerie, or Leatherwork, a later addition to the repertoire of the métiers involved in the fashion industry as it was not until the 19th century that tanning processes had developed to allow skins to be worked as easily as textiles.  This opened up a lot of new possibilities for ornamental elements in fashion such as cutwork, buttons and appliqué.  Probably my favorite piece in the exhibition is this 1919 haute couture coat by Paul Poiret that features a white fur collar and white leather cut out geometric designs hand sewn onto the cuffs and front panels.

With advancements in fabricated materials, dying, faux finishes and stamping, as well as laser cutting and ultrasonic welding, designers have created leather and leather trimmed garments that even a genius like Paul Poiret could never have conceived.  These two dresses from the Comme des Garçons 2014 and 2015 prêt-à-porter collections use synthetic leather that is laser cut and linked with grommets, rings and rivets.

As well as a feast for the eyes, "Manus x Machina" is a celebration of both the gifted artisans whose painstaking labor produced magnificent decorations and the creative use of technology to open up new possibilities in field of fashion.  The line between man and machine has certainly blurred in the 21st century, but this exhibition makes a very good case that both may co-exist and thrive with stylish results.

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