Met Refuses to Draw Line Between Art, Technology, and Fashion

Sara Burton’s 2013 ensemble for McQueen: laser-cut pony skin bonded to leather, machine-sewn and finished with Mongolian lamb

Lasers: Sara Burton’s 2013 ensemble for McQueen: laser-cut pony skin bonded to leather, machine-sewn and finished with Mongolian lamb

As cool as an iPhone and as meticulously engineered, the Met’s new blockbuster Costume Institute show — Manus + Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology — asks you to think about the frocks you’re seeing: does a designer’s reliance on technology diminish the artistic value of haute couture, which has for centuries relied upon handcrafted structure and embellishment?

See for yourself before August 14 and click here to look at the details in our Flickr album.

The show is a meditation on the beauty that can come when great design minds have centuries-old craft collide with technology. It helps to have gazzilions of resources (hands in Paris) at your disposal. The result: really good art and wondrous feats of engineering that just happens to be fashion.

There’s plenty to ponder and repeat visits are a must. Curator Andrew Bolton said that the idea came to him as he examined YSL’s iconic Mondrian dress and realized that this Sixties haute couture dress-that-went-viral was mostly stitched by sewing machine, a no-no in the rule-book of the Paris high-fashion syndicate.

Yves Saint Laurent’s hand-worked 1958 trapeze in his first collection at Dior.

Yves Saint Laurent’s hand-worked 1958 trapeze in his first collection at Dior. Five layers of tulle with hand embroidery

It made him ponder the extent to which handwork and machine intersect in the world of high fashion.

Underwritten by Apple, there are no digital iPads or robots on the scene (like the Met’s revolutionary Charles James show) – just classical domes and arches highlighting masterworks of craftsmanship that cry out for the closest of scrutiny. Although it’s fun to waft through the crowds, getting glimpses of dazzling beadwork and dreamy Grecian-pleated chiffon gowns, to join Bolton in his investigation, reading the label copy, wall copy, and close inspection is a must.

Your first glimpse sets the historic context: The stunning Chanel wedding ensemble under the main dome (a created space made from a false floor across the upper level of the usually empty atrium of the Lehman wing) is surrounded by books. Leather-bound volumes of Diderot’s 1762-71 encyclopedia on liberal and mechanical arts are open to engravings of lacemaking and embroidery.

Diderot’s 1762-71 encyclopedia on liberal and mechanical arts

Diderot’s 1762-71 encyclopedia on liberal and mechanical arts

By including these “métiers”, Diderot elevated fine dressmaking skills to the level of respect given to other types of 18th-century engineering.

Bolton chose Diderot’s encyclopedia categories as the sub-sections of the show and gave each métier can-you-believe-what-you’re-seeing treatment. Click here to read more about each métier on the Met’s website.

The pleating section of the show is a great example, beginning by displaying the masterful hand-formed pleats on Grecian gowns designed by Madame Grés and the still-mysterious processes used by Fortuny to clothe boho types in liquid charmeuse pleats at the dawn of the 20th century.

Issey Miyake ready-to-wear 1994 Flying Saucer dress fully extended; synthetic polyester that is machine pleated and stitched

Issey Miyake ready-to-wear 1994 Flying Saucer dress fully extended; synthetic polyester that is machine pleated and stitched

Across the way, you can compare Fortuny’s craftsmanship with machine-stitched and pleated versions, which are no less compelling. Mary McFadden’s pleated dresses were must-haves of the must-be-seen society set in the Seventies and Eighties. Mary’s synthetic pleated fabric was a pull-it-out-of-the-suitcase miracle in a world of jet-set travel and society parties.

And don’t ignore the works in the show by Issey Miyake, who wowed the design world with innovative pleated shapes that twisted and turned into avant-garde dresses and tops. Machine made from synthetic material, Miyake’s creations could fold flat and be popped into action in a nanosecond. His techno-trick was to make an entire, gigantic garment, position the fabric into pleats and run the entire garment through a heat press. Go, Flying Saucer dress!

In every section of the show, Bolton provides something historic (such as the 1870s hand-crocheted wedding gown) bookended by blazingly new creations, such as Iris Van Herpen’s 3-D-printed creations.

Close-up: Fortuny’s hand-pleated, hand-sewn 1920s charmeuse dress; Venetian-beads embroidery and hand-knotted silk trim

Close-up: Fortuny’s hand-pleated, hand-sewn 1920s charmeuse dress; Venetian-beads embroidery and hand-knotted silk trim

Muslins from Charles James reveal classic tailoring techniques by the master engineer, worked and re-worked by hand until perfection was achieved. Miyake pushed the boundaries of modern dressmaking one step further by using lasers to cut polyester monofilament, draping it, and shaping it with metal snaps –creating a dress without using any needles, thread, or scissors.

Laser cutting makes multiple appearances in the show with the work of Comme des Garcons, Iris van Herpen, Thom Brown, and Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. However, traditional techniques by historic Parisian ateliers are on view, too – a Chanel embellished by Maison Lemarie with 2,500 fabric camellias that took 90 minutes each to create, Dior’s post-war embroidered floral dresses bursting with foilage, and YSL’s game-changing trapeze dress in his first collection for Dior. This last creation had five layers of tulle embellished with crystals, beads, and sequin clusters by Maison Rébé.

At the press opening, Apple’s designer extraordinaire, Jony Ive, cautioned viewers to remember that technology and craft are not at odds. The notion of care – whether by hand or machine – is intrinsic to everything in the show.

Enjoy Mr. Bolton’s walk-through.

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