Fashion at the Met Museum: Manus x Machina

Every May the Costume Institute at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsors a special fashion exhibition. This year’s exhibition, titled Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, is on view through August 14, 2016. [Update: The exhibition has now been extended through September 5, 2016!] The exhibition explores the evolution of hand-made and machine-made haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear fashion from the 20th and 21st centuries.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is this stunning wedding dress by designer Karl Lagerfeld, part of Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 2014-2015 collection. The dress is constructed of hand-sculpted scuba knit, and the magnificent 20-foot train is embellished with gold hand-painting, machine-attached rhinestones, and hand-embroidered pearls and gemstones. The people in the photos below give you some idea of the scale of the train. As the first thing visitors see when they enter the exhibition, it raises expectations of what’s to come.

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Much of the exhibition was divided up into techniques used to add details to designs. One section explored flower-making techniques, and included numerous dresses from the past 100 years to illustrate the evolution of those techniques. I found these two dresses, by British designer Alexander McQueen, very interesting. The flower petals were made of metal and had synthetic pearl centers. The dresses were part of his Spring/Summer 2009 collection.

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There was also this striking dress by Christian Dior, part of Dior’s Autumn/Winter 1949-1950 collection. Although the dress itself was machine-sewn, the 45 petals that make up the skirt were hand-embroidered with sequins.

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This next dress, Yves Saint Laurent’s 1983 “sardine” dress, has a machine-constructed foundation but required approximately 1500 hours of handwork to create the appearance of fish scales.

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Another section of the exhibition demonstrated the use of feathers in design. There were some amazing dresses in this part of the exhibition, but because they were behind glass it was difficult to photograph. I did get a good shot of this evening dress by Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, part of his Autumn/Winter 1965-1966 collection. The dress is trimmed in pink-dyed ostrich feathers.

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As visitors continue to explore, there is another section focusing on pleating. Here, technological innovations really contrast with more traditional forms of embellishment. One display shows three dresses from two designers and three different time periods, from left to right: Madame Gres (Alix Barton), from 1968; Madame Gres, from 1950-1955, and Iris van Herpen, from her Spring/Summer 2010 collection.

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Here’s a close of view of van Herpen’s design, with its 3-D printed details.

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These 2014 designs by Israeli designer Noa Raviv, which also contain 3-D printed details, captured my attention.

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These hand-pleated, hand-sewn, and hand-embroidered dresses from the 1920s and 1930s were gorgeous – the designer was Mariano Fortuny, from Spain.

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There were also several elegant dresses like this one from 1980, by American-born designer Mary McFadden. Unlike the Mariano Fortuny dresses, the McFadden dresses were machine-sewn and pleated, but then hand-embroidered and finished. I loved the McFadden’s choices of jewel tones, and the designs looked like they would not have been out-of-place in the English royal court centuries past.

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Those more traditional designs are contrasted with those of Japanese designer Issey Miyake. Here are a couple of my favorites, from the Spring/Summer 1990 and 1993 collections.

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The contrast between innovation and traditional techniques continues in the section of the exhibition that focuses on lace. Visitors will find beautiful examples of traditional lacework, such as this Spring/Summer 1963 suit by Yves Saint Lauren.

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But there are again numerous designs incorporating 3-D printing technology, such as the “Bahai” Dress by American designer Threeasfour, from the Spring/Summer 2014 collection. This dress is an interesting example of the exhibition’s overall theme, as the 3-D printed “lace” has been hand-embroidered onto a machine-sewn dress.

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Here is a detailed look at the “lace” from this dress.

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And here is another incredible example of a technologically-inspired design. This one is from Iris van Herpen’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection and is hand-embroidered with thermoformed laser-cut acrylic.

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There are so many more designs to see in the exhibition, but I thought I would end with this one last dress by Iris van Herpen, from her Autumn 2012 collection. On the surface, this dress may seem like it only represents the “machina” part of the exhibition theme, as it is obviously 3-D printed. But from the exhibit description I learned that the dress was hand-sanded and hand-sprayed with a special resin, so it actually represents both aspects after all. This dress really captures the imagination, even if it doesn’t fit our expectations of traditional fashion.

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If you are in New York City before the exhibition ends in August, I encourage you to see Manus x Machina for yourself. What I’ve included in this post is just a small sample of what you will see during your visit, and my photographs can’t fully capture how striking these designs really are. (Note: all special exhibitions are included in the Met Museum’s recommended ticket price of $25.00, so you can see both Manus x Machina and the many other incredible works on display at the museum.)

The best way to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is by public transportation. If traveling by subway, take the 4, 5, or 6 train to 86th Street, and then walk west to Fifth Avenue. You can also reach the museum by bus on the M1, M2, M3, or M4 routes. If taking one of these routes going north, you will travel up Madison Avenue to the 83rd Street stop. If coming from points further north, take one of these bus routes south along Fifth Avenue to the 82nd Street stop, right next to the museum. There is a parking garage for those who prefer to drive themselves, but the rates are pretty expensive.

24 thoughts on “Fashion at the Met Museum: Manus x Machina

  1. This is an exhibit you could go back to many times and still see stuff.Love the Dior dress–it’s kind of magical and princessy. The Balenciaga is interesting. I think you would have to be extremely slim to wear it otherwise you would look like a giant puff ball.The Fortuny dresses are fabulous. I read an article on him various years back in The New Yorker and would love to see his dresses in person. He was a total perfectionist–and drove other people batty. You are supposed to be able to fold his dresses a certain way and take them out 20 years later and wear them. That final dress is stunning. Has anyone ever worn it?

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    1. You’re right – the exhibition is large enough, and so many of the designs have so much detail, that it really is one to visit over and over again. The Fortuny dresses were absolutely beautiful. I have close up views of each one, but I didn’t want to overwhelm the blog with too many photos total. I’m going to have to look for that New Yorker article now. The final dress was worn in van Herpen’s Autumn 2012 fashion show – I found photos of the model walking the runway in that dress, as well as some other amazing dresses, on this website that’s part of New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/thecut/fashion/shows/2012/fall/paris/couture/iris-van-herpen.html (this dress was #10 in the slide show).

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  2. Wonderful museum photos, without the interference of lights and people. You’ve given me a great tour of fashion as art: do people actually wear these garments? And where? Not at Potato Point, I’m sure of that. I love your close-ups and your account of the technology. The organising concept for the exhibition is fascinating, and so are the sub-categories. I think my favourite is the maroon and gold Issey Miyake one. Thank you yet again for a fascinating post.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Meg! Many of the dresses have been worn in fashion shows, but are really to avant garde for ready-to-wear clothing. There were a quite a number of more traditional evening dresses and other outfits though, and I imagine that those were worn by someone other than runway models. I really liked the lines of the maroon and gold dress as well, and I loved the Mariano Fortuny dresses from the 1920s and 1930s – they were wonderfully vintage. But there’s something so interesting about the 3D printed dresses – I’m not always sure that I like them, but they definitely make me think!

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  3. Hi Susan
    This article got me so excited! New York & fashion go hand in hand & thanks for sharing these pictures:) I loved the McFadden jewel tone dress too! I happened to follow the Met Gala this year & fell in love with Claire Danes’s dress? Whose did you like best?

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    1. Claire Dane’s dress was absolutely stunning – I don’t think anything else was quite on that level this year. I did really like Emma Watson’s ensemble though – it was elegant but forward thinking. And there was something kind of cool about the fact that it had multiple pieces that could be reused to create totally new outfits.

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  4. Such innovative, creative pieces. I’m sure it must have been fun to see the entire exhibit. Not sure I’d want to actually wear any of these but certainly appreciate the talent, and amount of time, that went into creating them.

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  5. Hi Susan! Thanks for liking one of our posts! We’re quite happy to meet another NYC blogger. 🙂 We’re really excited to check this exhibit out, we loved the China Through The Looking Glass one last year and have been looking forward to this one. We’re slated to finally make it out there next weekend. Fun preview!

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