Nestled in the Met’s circular Robert H. Lehman wing, “Manus x Machina” explores the relationship between the handmade and the mechanized in fashion.
The Robert Lehman Collection of approximately 300 paintings, particularly rich in the field of the Italian Renaissance, is one of the most distinguished privately assembled art collections in the United States. A wing, erected to display the collection, opened to the public in 1975.
The structure of Manus x Machina mirrors Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, 1751–72), a tome of the French Enlightenment that aimed to give these métiers the same gravitas as the arts and science.
The galleries divided into the tenets of design outlined this Encyclopédie: embroidery, feather work, artificial flowers, lacework, leatherwork, pleating, tailoring, and dressmaking. (...)
Leather-bound volumes of Encyclopédie are displayed around the atrium, each opened to a page introducing a different métier: tailoring, lace, featherwork.
This is an exhibit about remarkably beautiful clothes that are aesthetically, technically, and historically significant.
Arranged over two floors, the exhibition showcases examples of 3D printing, laser cutting and other machine-based fabrication combined with work completed by hand.
The first thing visitors encounter upon entering the exhibit is a wedding gown with a 20-foot train. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel’s fall 2014 haute couture collection, its construction is not only technologically innovative, it challenges the notion that couture is necessarily handmade.
The train was initially sketched by hand; then digitally manipulated to create the appearance of a pixelated baroque pattern; hand-painted with gold metallic pigment; machine-printed with rhinestones; and finally hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones.
“Traditionally, the hand has been identified with exclusivity, spontaneity and individuality,” explained curator Andrew Bolton in a preview earlier this week. “Likewise, the machine has been understood to signify not only progress, but also inferiority, dehumanization and homogenization.”
Those assumptions are challenged across two floors spanning 170 pieces dating from the late 19th century to present day. Upper galleries are dedicated to embroidery, feather work and artificial flowers, while ground-floor spaces investigate pleating, lacework and leatherwork.
The term "fashion-tech" may be less than 10 years old, but many of the garments on display in Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology date back to the early 1900s.
This year, Apple, which is marketing its "wearable tech" device — the Apple Watch — as a fashion accessory, is sponsoring the exhibition. The company's sponsorship of Manus x Machina comes at a tough time for Apple, which recently reported a year-over-year decline in quarterly revenue for the first time since 2003
“Manus X Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” runs through September 5.