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Manus X Machina: Fashion beyond the Hand-made

The exhibition at the MET curated by Andrew Bolton is a meditation on time and space

manus x machina
Can a distinction still be made distinguish between the hand-made and the machine-made? Between Haute Couture and Prêt-à-porter?  The exhibition Manus x Machina at the Metropolitan Museum of New York until September 5th maps trajectory that sees fashion at the heart of history.


The Hand-Made has a special status in our globalized and post-digital age. The Handmade brings with it an aura of distinction and luxury, the qualities that have been the basis for the Made in Italy as a brand and as a lifestyle. In the advertising codes and rhetoric of prestigious brands such as Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Fendi, Chanel and Valentino, to name but a few, the artisanal hand is emphasized in order to define their status and belonging to the realm of luxury. The know-how that was once kept secret in the old medieval workshop of the master artisan is today brought to the fore, show-cased so as to define the identity, narrative and history of the brand. But can we still maintain that the handmade is in opposition to the machine-made and maintains its aura of uniqueness and beauty? Or is it more accurate to say that the two competences and processes are distinct?

The exhibition, Manus x Machina. Fashion in an Age of Technology, curated by Andrew Bolton, now head curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, has many merits. The first is that of challenging the age-old dichotomy between hand and machine and to look for that which often remains hidden and invisible to the naked eye: the making and the process of design and manufacturing of clothes. Thus, the exhibition deals brilliantly with the complex relationship between artisanal fashion and the custom made–traditionally defined as the haute couture and the machine made–uses of technologies, the mass production that has defined the prêt-à-porter. As Bolton states in the exhibition’s catalogue, this relationship has developed in the course of time in a continuum of various collaborations and uses.

Manus X Machina

Indeed, the invention and use of the sewing machine in the 19th century took place at almost the same time as the birth of couture. The dynamics Manus x Machina that is so much part of our contemporary reality is revealed through its connections with the long history of this relationship. This concept emerges clearly from the exhibition. A well-balanced choice of clothing from haute couture and prêt-a-porter, examined as case studies, are the protagonists of the exhibition. The techniques and the tricks are revealed as the exhibition’s narrative explains the structure and techniques inside the dress as well as their designs and styles, ultimately arguing that a hierarchical relationship between Haute Couture and prêt a porter is not only utopian but obsolete. This kind of spatial structure in the organization and concept of the exhibition follows that of a book: Diderot and D’Alambert’s Encyclopedia published between 1751 and 1772. The Encyclopedia creates a map of the trades and tools linked to dressmaking and tailoring included at the same levels as the other arts and sciences. Diderot provides a vocabulary and a grammar of the haute couture that for centuries will characterize the international supremacy of Parisian fashion. The high fashion atelier is dissected with all its very specialized skills such as lacework, embroidery, artificial flowers etc.

With these premises in mind, it is with enthusiasm that we respond to the invitation of the exhibition to meditate on the meanings of clothing today and to read in a critical manner the opposition man/machine.

Let’s start with the question of hierarchy.

Manus and Machina = craft and technology

Several reviews of the exhibition (on view through September 5th), as well as the curator himself in the beautiful catalogue, clearly state that this kind of hierarchy cannot be maintained simply because the two know-hows complement each other together creating new stylistic forms and concepts of elegance and beauty. This kind of relationship is clearly revealed in the clothes by Prada included in the exhibition and taken up again in the interview between Bolton and Miuccia Prada in the second section of the catalogue (along with interviews with other designers such as Sarah Burton, Garret Pugh, Hussein Chalayan, Nicolas Guesquière, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli (Valentino S.P.A.), Karl Lagerfeld. This section is, in fact, very useful as it adds some depth to the issues that are posed in the essay in section 1 but also because it furthers the concept of the exhibition.

Manus X Machina

View of the Lower Level Gallery: Lacework. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the interview, Miuccia Prada states that the two categories of haute couture and prêt-a-porter cannot be kept separate anymore and finds it more relevant to examine the complexity of the processes of design.  Some of her collections show (2008-9) an amalgamation of lace and embroidery made both by hand and by machine. The same goes for the experimentation, to which she refers in the interview, in textile development and design, which is characteristic of the Prada DNA brand. I found the pairing Prada/Coco Chanel “little black dress” particularly stimulating but also important so as to understand how a contemporary brand such as Prada can both connect with the past and at the same time go in a completely different and innovative direction. The dress is made with the same textile as that used for a 1950s silhouette. The combination of zippers, textile and lack of adornment hold together the casual chic style with the luxury inspired by industrial design.

Manus X Machina

View of the Lower Level Gallery: Tailoring and Dressmaking. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Manus X Machina

Karl Lagerfeld, House of Chanel. Wedding dress, Fall/Winter 2005–6 haute couture. Photo: courtesy, Chanel Patrimoine Collection.

The entrance to the exhibition displays a beauty without frills, between the simple and the sublime. One enters as if in a secular temple, a catwalk in the center where the wedding couture dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel (Autumn/Winter 2014-15) stands alone. The dress recalls a Renaissance costume, but it is made with synthetic materials, a scuba-knit known as neopreme. This material was chosen for its malleability but at the same time for its sculptural rendition. The dress has a stunning train with its embroidery and decorations; it is a hybrid between the hand-made and the machine-made. The train whose design was first sketched by hand was then manipulated on the computer in order to give it the appearance of a pixelated “baroque” pattern. Its making went through different stages that included work with by hand and by machine and was finally embroidered by hand with pearls and gems. The train required 450 hours of work. Karl Lagerfeld has defined the dress as “Haute couture without the couture.” The dress was made for the wedding of the model Ashleigh Good, pregnant at the time with her daughter Emily.

Lagerfeld’s dress stands alone, accompanied only by the volumes of Diderot’s encyclopedia open at the pages on the trades of dressmaking, in the background soft music by Brian Eno–“An Ending”–envelops the almost muffled atmosphere of the environment. The ceiling and the walls are white and made of see through muslin that renders the walls porous, like a subtle protective membrane to keep the world at bay, while at the same time showing how the interior and the exterior–of the world, and of things and clothing–are interconnected. But at the same time this porosity, typical of fashion, communicates its own fragility and strength.

Lagerfeld’s wedding gown and the architectural entrance establish the premise of the exhibition in an exemplary and precise manner. Nevertheless, both space and object establish the ground for a call to meditation, to think without panicking, free from the obsession of noise and proliferation of images or ideas without substance that put on an empty show.

Manus X Machina

Christian Dior, Vilmiron dress, Spring/Summer 1952 haute couture. Photo: Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Byron C. Foy, 1955 © Nicholas Alan Cope.

This is an exhibition that explores method. Clothes are treated as case studies that are revealed, almost dissected in order to tell the story of their making. Hence an important element is the pairing of certain dresses following the examination of details of decoration, draping, shape etc. This is the case for Prada and Chanel, but also Prada and Callot-Soeurs. It is fascinating to see Madelaine Vionnet appear next to Issey Myake or Paul Poiret to Alexander McQueen.  Not to mention the spectacle and the opportunity to look closely at the stunning Dior couture dress (Juno Dress, and Venus Dress, 1949-50)

With its photos and enlarged details that bring together designers who seem so distant from each other both in style and chronology, the catalogue, in fact, offers an additional space to further the study of dress   Indeed, thanks to technologies used in medicine and the sciences, it is possible now almost literally to penetrate the secrets of dressmaking and its process. Details and techniques that would impossible to see with a naked eye are exposed, and become a key feature of the show.

Manus X Machina

Vista della Lower Level Gallery: Leatherwork. Foto: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fashion and Time

Time and temporality reign supreme in an exhibition that materializes the time of fashion and the time of making in multiple and subtle manners. In Lagerfeld’s wedding dress a future time in fieri is described, about to be born while at the same time bearing continuous traces of the past and the present, of returns―as in shape of the dress and embroidery―but also of a time that precedes Diderot and the Enlightenment, the time of the birth of couture identified with Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who established his business in Paris, the city that later would be launched as the capital of fashion and modernity.

The reference to the project of Encyclopedia and to the mapping of trades and tools, of techniques is important because, as Bolton underlines in the introductory essay in the catalogue, Diderot performs a Copernican revolution, affirming with strength the dignity of trades and manual professions and giving them a new order and space in the hierarchy of the intellectual disciplines of the arts and sciences. The hand meets the brain and vice versa. But here this marriage is codified as an oppositional relationship that goes all the way back to Aristotle. The hand reconnects with the intellect and ennobles its work, gives dignity to a trade, that of the dressmaker/tailor and the atelier.

Diderot’s project, we must say, has a long history not only in France but also in Europe and above all in Italy. Indeed, the tension towards encyclopedism starts at the same time as a period of great transformation– the geographical explorations, the invention of printing, the formation of national vernaculars and thus of the concept of nation. It is not by chance, then, in the midst of humanism and the renaissance the need to establish a language of fashion or “La cosa degli habiti,” as defined by the Venetian Cesare Vecellio, comes to the fore. It is in this period, in fact, that clothing and their trades, are examined from the perspective of their role in identity formation, their styles, design, and of course their economic, political and social implications. Clothing became part of geographical and social mapping, a creation of a paradigmatic structure that studied the details, styles, fabric, embroideries aiming at organizing knowledge spatially between the art of memory and encyclopedism.

Starting in the sixteenth century different works are published that aim at defining specific trades and arts such as embroidery that many years later will define not only Parisian couture but also Italian style. In addition to his encyclopedic work, Habiti Antichi et Moderni di tutte le parti del mondo (1590; 1598), Vecellio also  published a book about embroidery, Corone delle nobili e virtuose donne (1550).

Manus X Machina

Located somewhere between storytelling and baroque encyclopedism, Tommaso Garzoni published La piazza universal delle professioni nel mondo (1585) where the figure of the tailor emerges along with those of other artisans. Thus the encyclopedism of the Enlightenment finds its roots in the encyclopedism of the Renaissance and the Baroque.

History and Poetry

Manus x Machina describes a non-linear history. It puts on display under our eyes ideas theorized by some of the philosophers of modernity, Diderot and Benjamin, both referenced by Bolton. But the exhibition explains in a poetic manner the reasons, which are not too mysterious for those of us who study the history and theory of fashion, why fashion opens up a series of windows that allow us to understand and interrogate individual and collective history. I would like in fact to recall the etymology of the word poetry, a derivation from the Greek verb poiein that means to make and create.

Clothing and fashion going not only go inside the folds, the seams and the secrets of dress to help us parallel and coeval fields that at first seem not to share anything at all:  science, architecture, medicine, poetry, philosophy, fantasy and memories. And it is for these reasons that we have to thank Andrew Bolton for having given us not only an exhibition to admire but also an exhibition that enjoins us to think about the richness of ideas, and appreciate the serenity and composure that characterize wisdom and beauty.


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