From Lace to Lasers -- The Met Museum's Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology Exhibit

Twenty years ago, designers were using high-tech materials to create neoprene rubber wet suits and bullet-resistant body armor. Now, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in its new Costume Institute exhibit "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" is filled with 170 designs not only meticulously crafted using traditional materials and techniques but also created from the latest synthetic materials and processes including 3-D printed lace strips, laser cut silicone feathers, and ultrasonic welding.

The exhibit is filled with exquisite and witty designs that range from Christian Dior's elegant 1949-50 haute couture "Venus" dress with its hand-embroidered opalescent gelatin sequins to innovative British designer Hussein Chalayan's 2007 "One Hundred and Eleven" ready-to-wear "Mechanical Dress" with aluminum plaques that originally wowed runway audiences by spreading out into a rounded shape when activated by a remote control (the aluminum is ornamented with Swarovski rhinestones and the dress's title was a tribute to Swarovski's 111th anniversary).

Going through the arched doorway, viewers at the Met's exhibit first encounter the show-stopping Chanel wedding ensemble with its 20-foot jewel-encrusted train. The experience is quasi-religious with the sounds of Brian Eno's soaring and sardonically-titled "Music for Airports" and the dress train's patterns projected onto the domed ceiling (complete with eye or oculus). It feels a bit like walking into a cathedral only it's a fashion cathedral for the computer age: the wedding dress designed for Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld is hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones but also made of cream-colored scuba knit material with the satin train machine-printed with rhinestones.

"Manus x Machina" means Hand/Machine and the exhibit's curator, Alexander Bolton, is emphatic that the "x" in the title is a multiplication symbol signifying that that hand and machine are not "oppositional" but are "equal and mutual protagonists in solving design problems." Each discipline--hand-made and machine-made-- "has regularly embraced the practices of the other."

Haute couture generally refers to highly-expensive fashions custom-fitted to a particular body while prèt-à-porter or ready-to-wear are clothing lines with standardized sizes for wider consumption. Both are represented in the show, though the "ready-to-wear" designation is often fanciful: the "Video Dress" by Chalayan from his autumn 2007-2008 "Airborne" collection is illuminated and hand-wired with 15,600 flashing LED lights, a design probably more to admire and gaze at than dance in and Chalayan's 2011-2012 "Kaikoku" Floating Dress made of cast fiber glass covered with gold pigment is an elegant shape more sculptural than dress. The designer himself has said he'd like his designs to be both wearable and "monumental"--a feat not always easy to reconcile.

Along with Chalayan, one of the stars of the exhibit producing some of the most intriguing and arresting dresses is Dutch designer Iris van Herpen who founded her own atelier in 2007. Her 2010 spring/summer Ensemble haute-couture dress has a strikingly sculptural 3-D printed bodice made of white polyamide and a ringed skirt made of machine-sewn white goat skin with hand-cut acrylic fringe-like filaments suggesting a nineteenth-century wired crinoline.

Van Herpen frequently collaborates with architects, computer designers, engineers, artists, and scientists as she unites traditional craftsmanship with today's technologies. In an interview with Andrew Bolton she has said, "I work with technology but the hand and the machine are equal within my design process--they are totally integrated." She is known for her use of 3-D printing which she says she likes because it permits extraordinary detailing and she notes that the polyamide is a durable and strong material also used in automotive design.

In her interview with Bolton in the exhibit's catalog, she said she used to dance and that a good word to describe her work is "movement." Her 2013-2014 haute-couture dress is all about freedom and flight. It was created with strips of laser-cut nude silicone "feathers" and has silicone-covered gull skulls created by artist Cedric Laquize in Amsterdam. In the exhibit, van Herpen's dress is juxtaposed with Yves Saint Laurent's 1969-1970 Evening Dress created with hand-glued white, black and brown bird-of-paradise feathers and nude silk gauze. The Saint Laurent dress looks soft and calm; van Herpen's dress with its bird heads is energized and looks like it's about to lift off in the air.

Many of these fashions use both hand and machine to produce highly-elaborate ensembles with multiples: Karl Lagerfeld's 2010 haut-couture ensemble features 1300 hand-pieced satin flowers and Yves Saint Laurent hand-embroidered "Sardine Dress" took 1500 hours to complete. Embroidery machines and laser cutting has made the processes more efficient, but many of the creations look labor intensive. One of the stories we hear little about in the exhibit is that of the workers who produced the lacework, pleating, embroidery--in European and American ateliers, in factories, in workshops. Were they mostly women, men? Were they highly paid for their expertise, were they underpaid, as were women workers in mid-nineteenth century France and Switzerland where hand-embroidery was often done? Who is employed in ateliers, computer design, and 3-D printing firms today? Both the curator and van Herpen have spoken about their wish to keep the technology of the fashions "invisible" rather than blatant, but we may also wonder about the invisible workers who helped create the clothes.

The exhibit's subtitle is "Fashion in an Age of Technology" and in many ways the show is an exhilarating celebration of the creative uses of today's technological materials and techniques. Still, there are mixed feelings. Van Herpen in her interview with Bolton says that 3-D printing needs to become more user friendly and though Bolton himself is hopeful that 3-D printing may become available for home use---bringing its capacity for customization to a wider audience---the technology is not yet there.

In his catalog interview with Chalayan, Bolton mentions that "in the history of fashion, there are many of examples of anxiety, even terror, surrounding technology, despite the fact that fashion and technology are inextricably connected." One of Chalayan's dresses from his spring/summer 2009 "Inertia" ready-to-wear collection reveals an ambivalence about technology. Neoprene has come a long way from those wet suits. The Chalayan design is made of jersey ultrasonically welded (or thermo bonded) to neoprene, and is hand-painted and airbrushed with gray, green blue, brown, black and red imagery taken from photographs of the remnants of car crashes---fenders, car handles-- found in automobile "graveyards." Says the designer, we live in a world caught up in speed and "fast-paced living," and the dresses represent the body being the "cause and effect of a crash in one moment."

Though the dress is a grim reminder of technological hazards, its sweeping lines also suggest the most optimistic aerodynamic lines of 1950s tail finned automobiles. Perhaps the designer remains hopeful after all: his "Kaikoku" Floating Dress with its cast gold-colored shape is covered with small paper "pollens" that fly away when radio controlled with a digital handset. These "pollens" suggest the potential for new organic growth and development in creative design.