Manus x Machina at the Metropolitan Museum, New York

Delphos dress at Metropolitan Museum exhibition 'Manus x Machina' with mushroom silk pleats

‘The hand and the machine’ is the vague-sounding inspiration for Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s about the high levels of craftsmanship involved in making fashion since 1900, either by hand-sewing and embellishing or using sewing machines and 3D printers in the process. Kind of dry until you realise how important the fashion industry is around the world, how it reflects society, and how many economies it supports. It seems we could all learn from this show.

Manus x Machina actually gets its roots from a historical French book, in a glass cabinet at the side of the first exhibits but not immediately obvious to visitors. Its catchy title: Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, 1751–72), by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert.

Dior 'Lucky' embellished corset and layers of netting and silk on show as mannequin display at Met Museum
This deconstructed dress, created by John Galliano for Dior, exposes the layers of fabric used to make red carpet designs.

Diderot and his mate basically highlight the metiers, or trades, practiced by craftspeople over the centuries, including appliqué, feather work and pleating, saying they’re just as good as more respected disciplines. The tens or hundreds of hours it takes to make some haute couture dresses could justify that judgement.

The Met’s Director and CEO, Thomas P. Campbell, promised “a new view in which the hand and the machine, often presented as oppositional, are mutual and equal protagonists.” So far, so airy, but don’t panic: this is a lot more accessible and interesting than it sounds. Besides, it’s totally free to visit, as part of your pay-what-you-want Met ticket, which means you could see the whole museum for nothing. Hence why the star-studded Met Costume Institute Gala, known as the Met Ball, fundraises every year to keep things going.

Karl Lagerfeld couture dress with train for Chanel, centrepiece of Manus x Machina
This wedding dress took some serious work – precisely, 450 hours of embroidery. Some marriages don’t even last 450 hours…

There are two levels, each with a main area surrounded by smaller sections with alcoves and platforms for displays. The main Chanel dress, visible as soon as you enter, is a crowd-pleaser, with its long train embellished with gold paint, rhinestones, pearls and beads. However, from the front it’s almost frumpy with its scuba knit fabric. Still, that doesn’t put off the photographers.

Taking photos in this exhibition brings you even closer to this lofty world of privileged dressing (much like London’s Louis Vuitton Series 3), and I happily drink in the atmosphere. Most exhibits are carefully explained, so nobody feels ignorant and you understand the overarching connections between lace making, leatherwork and embellishment.

Sculptural minidress with pleated concertinas and netting against cream bias-cut evening gown
Designers like Madame Gres and Iris Van Herpen create traffic-stopping dresses, where the cut is key.

As I explore, a father of three small girls is doing the same. His eldest runs over to a particularly outlandish Iris Van Herpen number and declares “This is your favourite, Daddy,”. He’s not convinced, but he doesn’t discourage her, and they happily chat about what makes the dress special. Though it doesn’t seem outwardly child-friendly, Manus x Machina is inspiring for dreamers of all ages.

The best pieces look like classic museum artifacts: they make you draw breath. It’s the spectacular that makes an impression here, much like the costumes at the Met Gala, where anyone in a simplistic or ‘safe’ outfit fades into the background.

Floral dissected diagram with sequins on sweater and skirt making repeat pattern
Christopher Kane gives us a biology lesson, inspired by photosynthesis.

Brands who revel in the artistry of fashion, like Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, make repeat appearances; others, like Viktor & Rolf, don’t appear enough. What unites them all is that their pieces are best seen as wearable art rather than wearable clothes. Here are three more names to track down:

  • Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen is known for her 3D printed dresses, which can be flexible or static. TIME magazine named them one of the 50 best inventions in 2011. She continues to produce them with input from architect Isaie Bloch and printing techniques by the Belgian company Materialise NV. Don’t miss her skeleton dress.
  • Christopher Kane’s sequin-embellished floral dress and skirt (for Spring/Summer 2014) are like a science lesson brought to life. “It was a lot about dissecting and revealing,” he told British Vogue in 2013. He actually went back to his old school in Scotland to recapture biology lessons.
  • Conceptual genius Gareth Pugh has worked his magic with drinking straws, using them as the basis for sculptural mini-dresses. You couldn’t wear them down the pub, especially as some punters would try and nick your straws for their vodka and tonic, but they’re definitely spellbinding.
Gareth Pugh designed silk piece with straws for added movement.
Suck it up, Autumn/Winter 2015-2016. These straws moved like feathers, according to Pugh.

Some designers are less well known to modern audiences, but rightfully acknowledged here. Mariano Fortuny’s mushroom-pleated silk dresses, known as Delphos (patented 1909) or Peplos gowns, shine in a range of rainbow colours, some with medieval-style details. See several examples at the top of this post. Fortuny was a radical, allowing greater freedom of movement with his pleating than many contemporary dresses offered. He lined the side seams with glass beads to add detail and, more importantly, weight to the garments.

Though he was Spanish, the designer and inventor lived in Venice. You can still visit the Fortuny Museum, inside Palazzo Fortuny, for temporary exhibitions; the next one runs between 4th June – 10th October 2016.  Meanwhile, the National Art Centre in Tokyo has an Issey Miyake retrospective until 13th June 2016.

Futuristic dress known as 'flying saucer' by Japanese designer using colours and folded angular shapes
This Issey Miyake dress is made from layers of fabric and resembles a Chinese paper lantern. You can see the flat template on the wall.

This really is a clever and comprehensive exhibition. Manus x Machina is a triumph, so make a beeline for it if you’re in New York City between now and August, and gain a new appreciation for sewing skills.

Visiting Notes: Manus x Machina runs at the Robert Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, until 14 August 2016, with free entry.

Opening hours are 10:00-17:30 Sunday-Thursday and 10:00-21:00 Friday-Saturday (closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1, and the first Monday in May), with galleries cleared 15 minutes before closing. Entry is pay-what-you-want, but suggested donations are $25 for adults, $17 for seniors and $12 for students.