A Trip to The Met

House of Chanel wedding ensemble: Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
House of Chanel wedding ensemble: Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hand versus machine. The classic definition of haute couture is that it is made by hand and the prêt-á-porter collection is more industrialized and therefore, made by machines. No longer does the machine have to be the enemy of high fashion. Designers from Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel to Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen have decided that the future of fashion depends on its ability to move forward. Many couture pieces are now made by machine and finished by hand. And the pieces in the Met’s Manux x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology show that high fashion now is both incredibly similar and dissimilar to the fashion of 60 years ago.

The exhibit is a mastery of design itself, with the central piece being a Chanel wedding ensemble. That single outfit alone blows you away. The dress is made of stretchy scuba material—though you would never know from looking at it—and the stunningly long train was a hand-drawn brocade pattern by Karl Lagerfeld turned into a sparkling pixelated version of itself through a computer. Each individual section—embroidery, lace work, leather, feathers—has a separate area around the circular exhibit. Both floors are filled to the brim with the finest pieces from the last 80 years of high fashion. It’s a labyrinth of designs we all wish we could pull off at some point in our lives.

A 3-D printed dress by Iris van Herpen, 2012, in the Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, May 2, 2016.
A 3-D printed dress by Iris van Herpen, 2012, in the Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, May 2, 2016.

One of the most modern aspects of the exhibitions was the integration of 3-D printing with couture pieces. Chanel showed a few of their classic tweed suits made of 3-D printed polyamide. Designer Iris van Herpen makes it clear throughout the exhibition that she is a big fan of integrating 3-D printing into high fashion. Her 3-D printed orange “lace” dress is more likely to be donned by a supernatural model than something that could ever be seen in the light of day. The dress was created using stereolithography. Van Herpen built it layer by layer using liquid polymer, which she hardened using a laser beam. The piece brings together what she calls “graphic and organic elements” to create this futuristic lacework.

As wild as that dress might look now, in a few decades we might be pulling our online purchases out of the printer instead of a FedEx box! You never know…

Surprisingly, the process of making lace or sewing on embroidery such as crystals or beads has not changed for a couple hundred years. The last time anything new came out in that area was in the mid-1800s, when a new lace machine came into play. The beads of the gowns you see walking down the runway are still sown on by hand—each and every one of them a labor of love.

The top designers of today aren’t afraid of the future of fashion. None of them think the greatness of creating by hand will wither away anytime soon. There are some things a machine cannot do, even now. A 1958 Dior dress exemplifies this with its entire outer layer sprinkled with jewels. Christian Dior says the sparkles on the dress “seem as though they come from fairy hands.” Though the crystals were painstakingly embroidered on the dress, the final product is without a doubt worth the time.

House of Dior Dress: Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
House of Dior Dress: Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some people out of this inner circle fear that fashion has passed its golden era. That the days of exclusively hand-made couture being over have signaled some sort of steady downfall for the fashion industry as a whole. Sarah Burton does admit that she feels that “the hand is being lost today.” She still believes it is very important that every piece of clothing feels like it has had some attention paid to it by the hand. That being said, Burton is one of the many designers employing computers to create her designs for the McQueen collection season after season.

There is a beautiful point in the right in the middle between a 1937 Chanel lace evening gown, and a 2011 Heussein Chalayan remote-controlled dress on wheels. Many of the pieces in this collection are impossible to discern whether or not they were made with a machine. This exhibition houses both the ridiculous and the extraordinary of the couture fashion world.