Review of the Met’s Spring 2016 exhibition: Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology

I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as I approached the exhibition, gentle music gradually filled the air. I was awestruck by an otherworldly sight of gold, glittering and dancing in the light. This wonderful sight was the 20-ft train of a Chanel haute couture wedding gown from the Autumn/ Winter 2014- 2015 collection.

The entrance had a cathedral-like quality, with a zoomed in image of the dress projected onto the dome ceiling. Pages of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des métiers Crafts, 1751-72, were placed in glass cases around the dress – almost like manuscripts on display. Meanwhile, ethereal music played in the background (Brian Eno’s “The Ascent”). This church-like atmosphere created a quiet space to reflect on the exhibition and gave importance to the dress and items on display, informing visitors that the contents and ideas raised by the exhibition were sacred, to be studied and respected.

The exhibition highlighted the distinct relationship between fashion and technology, challenging the traditional idea of handmade clothing as more valuable than machine-made. The Chanel wedding gown at the entrance was a striking first example of how hand and machine techniques can work together. This dress was first sketched by hand, then manipulated on a computer to have a look of pixelation, then heat-pressed with rhinestones, hand-painted in gold and hand-embroidered.

The book on display at the entrance, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie, described métiers, or trades, of dressmaking. These métiers were used to curate the exhibition into sections, including embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework and leatherwork. In addition to these métiers, a room featured toiles and paper patterns, as well as tailoring and dressmaking. The layout of the exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, was clear and accessible, spreading over two floors.

Throughout the exhibition garments were juxtaposed beside each other; to highlight similarities between them and the continued relationship between hand and machine-made fashion throughout time. For example, the “Wet Lace Frill Dress”, a 2014 machine-made and machine-embroidered dress by Irish-born designer Simone Rocha, was placed deliberately beside a hand- sewn and machine-embroidered “Cocktail Dress” with hand-applied flounces and bows, from the House of Balenciaga Autumn/ Winter 1963-4 collection.

One of my favourite garments in the exhibition was the “May” Dress from the ‘Artificial Flowers’ section. It was a beautifully feminine Christian Dior dress, from the 1953 Spring/ Summer collection. The dress was formed by a combination of hand and machine techniques; it was machine-sewn, had hand- finished white silk organza and net, and was hand-embroidered with artificial flowers, clover and grass.

The exhibition was very informative, enriched by wall displays in each section presenting information on the métiers. Each garment was also accompanied by a label, description of its process of manufacture and sometimes a quote from the designer. Some garments were displayed against the background of a blown up image detailing its construction, which allowed the spectators to inspect the garment more closely.

I really enjoyed visiting the exhibition, sadly it has just ended so I can’t recommend visiting it any more, but I hope this provides some insight as to what it was about.