The Met’s Next Costume Institute Exhibit: More Couture Than Expected

This morning, we took a break from the parade of NYFW fall 2016 shows to preview the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upcoming Costume Institute exhibit (also this year’s Met Ball theme), Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. The exhibit, which explores how painstakingly detailed handwork contrasts — and, more often than not, dovetails — with machine-hewn technology, doesn’t open until May 5, timed to the Met Ball.
We got to check out 11 of the looks that will be on display come May, including three Chanel ensembles, dating from 1963 to 2015, plus two Dior numbers, two Iris van Herpen numbers, and one look apiece by YSL, Issey Miyake, Hussein Chalayan, and Christopher Kane.
“When I first started working on the show, I structured it as the machine against the hand, but as I went through the process [of curating], I realized that it just doesn’t work like that. The machine and the hand are both rarely absent from a garment — whether it’s haute couture or ready-to-wear,” Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator, told Refinery29. “I was surprised that 90% of a garment is usually created by machine. Even in my years as a curator, I just accepted that couture is all handmade. The role the machine plays in construction is so prevalent.”

Bolton thinks Manus x Machina attendees will likely be surprised as well by the abundance of couture pieces in the exhibit (we certainly were, judging by the handful of looks presented at the preview).
“The gap between haute couture and ready-to-wear seems to be diminishing — and that’s opening up a new, in-between space, and it’s an area that has more autonomy outside of the fashion system to be more creative,” Bolton told Refinery29 of a major takeaway from curating the exhibit. As for this year’s theme, “it’s really about technique more than technology — it’s about fashion in the age of technology, rather than than ‘fashion and technology,’” Bolton says. “I think that, nevertheless, people will come with the expectation to see robots.”
Pleating is the best “case study” of handmade versus machine-made, Bolton points out, citing couture house Fortuny and Mary McFadden, “one of the first designers to create a textile that could hold its pleats permanently,” made on a machine, as well as Issey Miyake, “who pleated the garment itself, instead of the textile.”
Embroidery is another area explored in the exhibition — the technique has traditionally been done exclusively by hand on haute couture pieces. “Increasingly, embroidery is being done in India, instead of in the Parisian ateliers,” Bolton notes of an aspect of the design process still being done sans machines, but often in a different part of the world. Some pieces also incorporate elaborate feather work.
As for how “focusing on designers that have consistently engaged with technology and have pushed the boundaries of fashion through technology: people like Iris van Herpen, Nicolas Ghesquière, Miuccia Prada, and Karl [Lagerfeld],” Bolton says. Expect pieces by all of those designers to be in the Manus x Machina exhibit. “Iris’ technology is very, very ‘in-your-face,’ but the technology that Karl, Miuccia, and Nicolas employ is much quieter and very invisible,” Bolton says. “To me, it’s so poetic when you look at a garment and don’t know what’s hand and what’s machine.”

One of Bolton’s favorite pieces in the collection is a Chanel couture fall 2014 wedding dress made from hand-molded, machine-sewn, hand-finished white synthetic scuba knit and ample embellishment on a dramatic gilded train. Besides being very pretty to stare at, the gown embodies this poetically fine line between time-honored techniques and tech-harnessing machine work that Manus x Machina aims to underscore. Check out a handful of looks from the preview, ahead.

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