Machine-made fashion has always threatened to overwhelm the more refined, yet fading traditions of hand craftsmanship, but the Costume Institute’s latest staging of ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology’ will happily debunk that diatribe. Comprised of over 170 pieces of haute couture garments and envelope-pushing ready-to-wear pieces, the exhibition traces the development of haute couture and discusses how industrial production has impacted (and in some cases, even continued) the highly worked, intricately detailed face of fashion.
Staged in the Robert Lehman Wing galleries on the museum’s ground and first floors, the exhibition has been installed within a dramatic cathedral-like structure designed by OMA. Constructed from translucent white scrims that have been stretched over an intentionally visible framework, the building-within-a-building feel unfolds as a series of alcoves and porte-cochères that radiate out from a central domed atrium.
OMA’s lead designer Shohei Shigematsu says, ‘We really wanted to create a shell that integrated the media, garments and texts together. Each of these different porte-cochères showcase the garments, along with projections of their details that work to amplify the craftsmanship in the pieces.’
Visually, the installation has an intentionally unfinished quality, visible from the skeleton framework of structural steel, wooden boards and exposed spotlights that peek out from behind and between the scrims, that have been stretched over and tucked into the system. Juxtaposed by the unadulterated finery exhibited in each space, the concept and design brings a modern, seductive quality to the exhibition that completely upends Wong Kar-wai’s sumptuous dreamscape from the year before.
Sartorially, ‘Manus x Machina’ justly spotlights each of haute couture’s fading métiers – from featherwork and embroidered flowers, to leatherwork, pleating, lacework and construction. Each category is armed with specimens of both tradition and the new. By pitting Iris van Herpen’s synthetic knit dresses, festooned with acrylic ‘feathers’ and fringe, with a 1956 Cristóbal Balenciaga gown hand-finished with glued pink ostrich feathers, the case is certainly made that technology has far from diminished the credibility of couture’s fine art.
‘Manus x Machina' challenges the conventions of the hand/machine dichotomy and proposes a new paradigm germane to our age of technology,’ says Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator. ‘Traditionally, the distinction between the haute couture and prêt-à-porter was based on the handmade and the machine-made, but this distinction has become increasingly blurred as both disciplines have embraced the practices and techniques of the other.’