|Karl Lagerfeld, House of Chanel, wedding ensemble, 2014-15.|
The exhibit Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, the latest iteration of the Costume Institute's annual show-stopper exhibit, has proved so popular that the Metropolitan Museum of Art extended its run until September 5, 2016. The show - curated by Andrew Bolton, new head curator of the Costume Institute - features 170 items, dating from 1870 to 2016. The installation does not focus on any one fashion house or particular movement but celebrates the techniques - implemented by both hand and machine - used in garment construction and embellishment.
|Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, dress, 2012.|
The labels and wall text are unusually well written and instructive, making the exhibit really a crash course in the evolution of techniques used in both haute couture and prèt-à-porter.
From the introductory wall text:
The traditional distinction between the haute couture and prèt-à-porter has always been between the custom-made and the ready-made. Haute couture clothes are singular models fitted to the body of a specific individual, while prèt-à-porter garments are produced in multiples for the mass market in standard sizes to fit many body types. Implicit in this difference is the assumption that the handwork techniques involved in the haute couture are superior to the mechanized methods of prèt-à-porter. Over the years, however, each discipline has regularly embraced the practices of the other. Despite the fact that this mutual exchange continues to accelerate, the dichotomy between the hand (manus) and the machine (machina) still characterizes the production processes of the haute couture and prèt-à-porter in the twenty-first century.
Instead of presenting the handmade and the machine-made as oppositional, this exhibition suggests a spectrum or continuum of practice, whereby the hand and the machine are equal and mutual protagonists in solving design problems, enhancing design practices, and, ultimately, advancing the future of the fashion. It prompts a rethinking of the institutions of the haute couture and prèt-à-porter, especially as the technical separations between the two grow increasingly ambiguous and the quality of designer prèt-à-porter more refined.
At the same time, the exhibition questions the cultural and symbolic meanings of the hand-machine dichotomy. Typically, the hand has been identified with exclusivity and individuality as well as with elitism and the cult of personality. Similarly, the machine has been understood to signify not only progress and democracy but also dehumanization and homogenization. In examining these values, the show's intention is to liberate the handmade and the machine-made from their usual confines of the haute couture and prèt-à-porter, releasing them from the exigencies of the fashion system into the hands of fashion designers for whom they serve as expressions of creative impulses.
|Pleated Fortuny gowns.|
The exhibit, on two levels in the Lehman gallery, is organized by the six traditional métiers, or trades, of dressmaking, codified in Denis Diderot's eighteenth century Encyclopédie. As Roberta Smith stated in her excellent New York Times review, the show is a veritable tutorial on the evolution of these traditional métiers: embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, and leatherwork. Sound quaint? Well, the category of featherwork, for example, includes two dresses by Gareth Pugh featuring plastic drinking straws, hand-sewn individually to a substrate in a similar manner as the dyed ostrich feathers hand-glued to a Givenchy gown from decades earlier.
|Gareth Pugh, dress with plastic drinking straws, 2015-16.|
|Hubert de Givenchy, evening dress with ostrich feathers, 1966-7.|
In addition, one section of the exhibit is dedicated to the materials used in the process of design - the paper patterns and muslin mock-ups. The final area of the show highlights the two traditional divisions within a couture house - tailleur and flou, or tailoring and dress-making.
The exhibit contrasts traditional and cutting-edge aspects of all the métiers, beginning with embroidery. As one would expect, the embroidery section features a lot of sequins, although the materials which can be applied to a garment range far beyond this small, shiny form of bead. Several maisons, or small, specialized companies which employ the skilled workers whose hands produce this work, include Hurel, Lanel, Lesage, Montex and Broderies Vermont. All though these maisons are located in Paris, more work is being sent to India, where artisans are increasingly providing the embellishment for prèt-à-porter garments in particular.
|Norman Norell, evening dresses with sequins, 1960's.|
|Left: Givenchy evening dress, 1963. Right: Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, 2012.|
Many of the garments in the show are in neutral colorways - white, black, etc. - creating overall tonal coherence, but also giving added "punch" to garments which venture into other hues, such as the coral dresses above, by Hubert de Givenchy and Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. The Givenchy dress is embroidered with glass beads, tinsel and coral, while the Burton garment features glass beads, freshwater pearls, coral and dyed shells.
The aquatic theme continues with the "Sardine" dress by Yves St. Laurent, one of the "case study" garments - artifacts show-cased in their own niches within the exhibit, and highlighted with a backdrop projection of up-close detail.
|"Sardine" dress, Yves St. Laurent, 1983.|
|"Sardine" dress, detail.|
From the exhibit wall text:
Known as the "sardine" dress, this formfitting sheath from Saint Laurent's 1983 "Gilda" collection was created in collaboration with Maison Lesage (founded 1924). The seams of the black silk crepe dress were sewn by machine and finished by hand in the Saint Laurent atelier. Lesage hand embroidered all the surface embellishments, executed in black and pewter beads and blue, gray, black, brown, silver, and opalescent gelatin paillettes to evoke the iridescent skin of a fish, a task that required fifteen hundred hours to complete. The allover imbrication, or fish scale pattern, obscures the dress's underlying structure and seams, creating the illusions of a second skin - a conceit that emphasizes the custom fit of a couture garment. Over the years, Lesage has provided embroidery for many maisons de couture. In 2002, CHANEL Paraffection, a division devoted to preserving the specialized métiers of the haute couture, acquired Lesage. To date, the division has acquired ten other ateliers: Desrues, Lemarie, Michel, Massaro, Goossens, Montex, Causse, Barrie, Lognon, and ACT3.
What the exhibit didn't explain was that the specialized maisons were in danger of ceasing to exist all together; Chanel purchased them to prevent skills and expertise from vanishing.
Finally, embroidery and surface manipulation enter new territory in Iris van Herpen's sculpted dress, on the right, below. (I apologize, by the way, for the blurriness of the detail images in this post; light levels were very low and of course flash photography was not allowed.)
|Left: Proenza Schouler dress, 2015-16. Right: Iris van Herpen dress, 2013-14.|
|Iris van Herpen dress, detail.|
"[This] dress has a base made from cotton fabric. Then there is a rubber component - a soft rubber - in which we place metal powder. When you mix everything together, the rubber has a few minutes when it is still wet and soft. We pour the rubber onto the cotton fabric. Then we place magnets above and below, and you see the metal powder grow piece by piece - in a matter of seconds - before it sets. The coloration is exquisite because while the rubber is still wet and soft we add a very thin enamel powder that has iridescent qualities."So, artisans manipulating magnets instead of sewing needles. Throughout the exhibit, garments explore exotic materials and methods, and I'll write more about this fascinating exhibit in additional posts.