Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology

When people think about technology, fashion isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. To many current designers and fashion enthusiasts, however, the two are inseparable and the evidence for that can be found in the “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Featuring 170 examples of haute couture and avant-garde prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear), dating from the early 1900s to the present, the exhibition explores how handmade and machine-made fashion meet and interact.

“Fashion and technology are inextricably connected, more so now than ever before,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Met. “It is therefore timely to examine the roles that the handmade and the machine-made have played in the creative process. This exhibition proposes a new view in which the hand and the machine, often presented as oppositional, are mutual and equal protagonists.”

Following the birth of haute couture (exclusive custom-fitted clothing constructed by hand from start to finish) and the introduction of the sewing machine in the mid-nineteenth century, the oppositional relationship between the hand (manus) and machine (machina) governed the culture of fashion. Although the sewing machine transformed the fashion industry by assisting in the transition from handmade to machine-made apparel and expediting the production and popularity of haute couture, the sewing machine and other means of mass production fell into a separate fashion category and a line was drawn. Thus, the two existed separately ever since the emergence of industrialization and mass production. The assumption that handwork techniques involved in the development of haute couture garments was more superior to the machine-made methods became more prevalent over time. However, “Manus x Machina” explores how they are actually woven together and how custom-fitted and ready-to-wear garments are the result of both hand techniques and technology.

“Traditionally, the distinction between the haute couture and prêt-à-porter was based on the handmade and the machine-made, but recently this distinction has become increasingly blurred as both disciplines have embraced the practices and techniques of the other,” said Andrew Bolton, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute. “I wanted to challenge the assumption of the hand versus the machine. One always thinks the hand is representative of superiority or luxury, the machine is inferior. Sometimes, a garment produced by a machine is so much more time consuming and complex.”

The epitome of this collaboration between the hand and machine is a fall/winter 2014 haute couture wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel at the entrance of the exhibition. The scuba knit ensemble has a 20-foot train and its pattern was hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, machine-printed with rhinestones, and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones, totaling in 450 hours of work. It’s absolutely breathtaking, so if you spend your time dreaming of attending luxurious fashion shows (like I do), then this presentation of exquisite garments is a must.

The exhibition is broken up into two floors and organized around the different métiers (trades) of dressmaking as outlined in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et de métiers (Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts). Published in France during the 18th century, the Encyclopédie challenged preconceived notions and sought to demonstrate the creativity and complexity involved in the mechanical arts, similar to what the exhibition is currently doing by challenging and questioning the dichotomy between the handmade and the machine-made in relation to haute couture and prêt-à-porter. The first floor focuses on embroidery, artificial flowers, and featherwork. The space below explores pleating, lacework, leatherwork, and tailoring (tailleur) and dressmaking (flou). Scattered throughout the exhibition are innovative technologies and techniques, such as 3D printing, laser cutting, computer modeling, bonding and laminating, and ultrasonic welding.

“I feel as though fashion is one of the first arts to embrace new technologies,” Bolton said. “I also wanted to redefine what one means by wearable technology, which is always about basically gadgets. Wearable technology is about laser cutting, ultrasonic welding . . . more hidden technologies than a jacket that tells you how hot you are.”

The art of decorative needlework, or embroidery, extends beyond the traditional use of thread and yarn. It also incorporates various other materials, such as pearls, beads, and sequins. In fact, Louis Ferry-Bonnechaux perfected a technique that allowed him to apply beads and sequins to fabrics in 1865. The craft became known as tambour beading, and since then, it has been widely used to embellish garments and accessories and continues to be used in modern haute couture. My favorite garment from this section of the exhibition was the spring/summer 2012 haute couture dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. The hand-and-machine sewn nude silk organdy and net dress featured hand-embroidered red-orange glass beads, freshwater pearls, pieces of coral, and dyed shells. The coral-embellished gown is truly a feast for the eyes and visitors will be in awe when standing in front of this bold, colourful and intricate piece of art.

“A lot of our embroideries are designed in our atelier, then sent to India to be executed, like the finale [pieces] in my spring/summer 2012 collection. Everything was done by hand—the embroidery, the cutting and fraying . . . It took days and days to finish. I lost track of the hours,” said Burton.

Artificial flowers (parurier floral) are also popularly used as a form of embellishment in both haute couture and ready-to-wear. Some flowers, like the camellias covering the autumn/winter 2005 haute couture wedding ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, took up to 90 minutes to complete by hand. Other flowers, however, were created with a different approach. Take, for example, the spring/summer 2014 ready-to-wear ensemble by Christopher Kane. The skirt was decorated with laser-cut yellow polyester voile appliqué.

“[For this dress] we laser cut [the] flower appliqués rather than cutting them by hand,” said Kane. “The collection was inspired by the process of photosynthesis, and my intention was to equate a flower’s reproductive system with that of a woman’s. The flowers were taken from a school science textbook—basically, the flowers were like huge textbook images blown up. Although flowers are organic forms, I think that the precision of the machine-created appliqués helped accentuate the didactic nature of the scientific reference textbook. The details are a combination of machine and hand embroidery.”

Pleating (plissage) instantly brings back memories of the crisp pleated skirts I wore in my private school days, but before this became a popular technique used in girls’ uniforms, pleating actually first started out in ancient Egypt between 3100 and 2649 B.C. Later on, between the 18th and 19th century, the folding technique became more popular in fashion as a result of the hand fan. There was a challenge when it came to creating these three-dimensional forms, it was the fact that most fabrics would not hold the pleats. Exploration and experimentation brought about a new method, specifically the use of synthetic textiles (such as nylon and polyester). Using these fabrics brought about permanently set pleats, since previous methods often flattened out and needed the pleats to be reset.

“It was Lily [Gronick] who developed the technique of cutting the ‘Marii’ pleated silk pinned on paper pattern,” said Mary McFadden, whose patented permanent pleating method used a synthetic charmeuse fabric. “Later, I found the polyester satin-back fiber in Australia that falls like liquid gold on the body, as if it were ancient Chinese silk. The fabric was always converted and dyed in Japan, according to the inspiration of each collection, then sent back to the U.S. for the heat-transfer pleating process. The pleating designs changed constantly over the years. I named the technique ‘Marii’ pleating, a Japanese version of my name, Mary.”

Couture houses traditionally have two ateliers, or workrooms, that focus on two different silhouettes: tailleur (tailoring) and flou (dressmaking). Tailleur specializes in suits and structured garments, whereas flou specializes in draping and soft construction. While the former is likely to start as a flat pattern that originated from a sketch, the latter is more likely to develop and evolve on the dressmaker’s form. This part of the exhibition also houses various toiles (cloth or canvas). These prototype garments were essentially three-dimensional sketches, since they allowed the designer to use muslin and inexpensive fabrics to create the basis for the paper pattern that would later be used to construct the finished garment.

“This dress shows the process of construction not deconstruction,” said John Galliano in reference to the autumn/winter 2005-6 haute couture ensemble he created for House of Dior. “What sets couture apart from ready-to-wear is the ateliers, the workmanship, and the amazing attention to detail—nothing is impossible, and imagination becomes even more beautiful. For this look, I wanted to show the magic of the draping on the form, how the block to the toile to the final gown is created, and all the stages in between. We did lots of ‘X-ray’ fabrics, worked with tulle so you could look through and see—and appreciate as well as understand—all the layers of the construction.”

Another métier explored in the exhibition had me feeling like I was in my own wonderland, and given my extreme love for it, it’s no surprise that it was my favorite part of the exhibition. Lacework (dentellerie) was introduced in the 15th century, and by the late 16th century, both needle lace and bobbin lace became popular in the realms of fashion and home décor. Given its delicate nature, it took a considerable amount of time and effort to produce handmade lace, and as a result, many sought to create alternative mechanical methods that would hasten the operation. The road to mechanize the process first started with John Heathcoat when he patented the Bobbinet machine in 1809. The Industrial Revolution also produced other alternatives, such as the Schiffli embroidery machine, which significantly increased the speed and efficiency of lacework. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the Raschel knitting machine continued the speed and efficiency in an economical way, and although machine-made lace is quite popular in fashion today, many couture houses employ specialists that continue the process by hand.

My absolute favorite garment from this section of the exhibition was a cream-colored lace Irish wedding dress from ca. 1870. It had three-dimensional motifs, such as roses, lilies of the valley, hanging fuchsias, morning glories, buds and berries, and flat and folded leaves and ferns. It was stunning and I can only imagine how long it took to do it all by hand. One of the most impressive pieces, however, came from Iris van Herpen. The spring/summer 2015 ready-to-wear dress was hand-embroidered with clear thermoformed laser-cut acrylic and it was made to imitate lace.

“This dress is made from laser-cut silicone chevrons that have been baked in an oven,” said van Herpen. “I assembled the dress myself—by hand—one Christmas. It took days and days, but it was a fun process—like Lego—a gigantic puzzle. I call the technique 3-D lacework.”

 Leather is a versatile and durable material that is used extensively throughout the fashion industry today, and while leatherwork (maroquinerie) has had a long history of being used for many functional and decorative purposes, it became more widely used in haute couture during the nineteenth century. At this time, fashion designers began to embellish garments with decorative leather buttons and appliqués. These days, a lot of leatherwork involves recent technologies, such as laser cutting, ultrasonic welding, and synthetic biology. One dress in particular that stood out was the spring/summer 2013 ready-to-wear dress by Thom Browne. Upon first impressions, I thought it was made of leather. It turns out that the entire dress was laser-cut white ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam!

“It’s very rare for me to make an item of clothing in which the hand is absent entirely, but this dress—made from EVA foam, but designed to look like leather—was cut by a machine, sewn by a machine, and finished by a machine,” said Browne. “I love the precision and perfection of machine-made clothes just as much as I love the imprecision and imperfection of handmade clothes.”

Different types of feathers are used in plumasserie (featherwork), but just like lacework and leatherwork, the process of manipulating and shaping feathers is both time consuming and laborious. It first involves cleaning and bleaching, and when it comes to shaping, some are trimmed and others are scorched. The nature of featherwork is so meticulous and delicate that—unlike the rest of the pieces used in the exhibition—these particular garments were encased behind windows. One ensemble that stood out to me was the autumn/winter 2014 couture level cape and dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. Both were hand-embroidered with black ostrich feathers as well as purple, black, gray, and green goose feathers.

“Every feather is hand cut and hand stitched,” said Burton. “People thought they were printed. We took a photograph of a moth’s wing, and then adapted it on a computer. So, hand first, machine second. The pattern is completely engineered.”

The exhibition was both inspiring and educational, and overall, an eye-opening experience. Normally, the final garments on the runways are what capture the audience’s attention and many don’t question what methods and techniques were used and how long it took to produce such works of art. This exhibition takes you through those processes in great detail. It was also exciting to see the various approaches that involve technology and how the fashion industry keeps pushing the boundaries through experimentation and exploration. It also engages your imagination, forcing you to step out of the traditional molds and to think outside the box. Finally, I think French fashion designer and current creative director of the house of Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière, said it best when he said, “Whether to use the hand or the machine is never completely apparent . . . Your decision has to be informed. It’s not simply a choice of one or the other. I think it’s an exciting part of the process, actually, not knowing how you will execute a garment until it says, ‘This is right for now. This is what fashion feels like at the moment.’”

The “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” exhibition is open at The Met Fifth Avenue through August 14, 2016.

Johnamarie Macias is a geek fashion enthusiast from New York City with a passion for all things Star Wars. She is the owner of and co-host on the Jedi News Network podcast dedicated to Star Wars and geek fashion, Galactic Fashion. Follow @BlueJaigEyes on Twitter and Instagram for her personal thoughts and other highlights. Also, follow @GalacticFashion on Twitter and @galacticfashiontwg on Instagram, where Johnamarie keeps fans and listeners informed with Star Wars fashion updates.

Johnamarie Macias is a geek fashion enthusiast from New York City with a passion for all things Star Wars. She is the owner of and co-host on the Jedi News Network podcast dedicated to Star Wars and geek fashion, Galactic Fashion. Follow @BlueJaigEyes on Twitter and Instagram for her personal thoughts and other highlights. Also, follow @GalacticFashion on Twitter and @galacticfashiontwg on Instagram, where Johnamarie keeps fans and listeners informed with Star Wars fashion updates.