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Met Costume Exhibit Explores Fashion in the Tech Age

The latest exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute proves that fashion and technology go hand in hand. Techniques like 3-D printing, digital printing, laser-cutting, ultrasonic welding and computer modeling can be just as intricate, painstaking and creative as the more traditional arts of embroidery and lacemaking.  On display until August 14th, “Manus X Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology” explores how designers are reconciling the handmade and the machine-made in haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear.

The CEO of the MET, Thomas P. Campbell, calls the exhibit a timely examination of the roles the handmade and the machine-made play in the creative process. “This exhibition proposes a new view in which the hand and the machine, often presented as oppositional, are mutual and equal protagonists,” he says.

In the breathtaking exhibit, intricately hand-embroidered vintage gowns share space with futuristic, sculptural 3-D printed dresses. A delicate, sparkling sequined piece rests next to a dress digitally printed with a trompe l’oeil sequin pattern. The exhibit finds room for dresses made of drinking straws and silk capes hand-embroidered with ostrich feathers. The centerpiece of the show is a 2014 haute couture wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel with a 20-foot train, its pattern hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, machine-printed with rhinestones and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones. Details of the embroidery are projected onto the domed ceiling above.

Surrounding this stunning, scuba knit ensemble are alcoves devoted to the arts of embroidery, featherwork and artificial flowers. On the floor below, there are rooms devoted to pleating, lacework and leatherwork, plus a room dedicated to tailoring and dressmaking. Videos, projected onto the floor near several garments reveal the processes behind their construction. And quotes from the designers also provide insight into their design process.

Among the more outlandish costumes exhibited are pieces by Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, including a dress with exaggerated shoulders that was hand-painted with gray and purple polyurethane resin and iron filings and hand-sculpted with magnets, and a prickly ivory gown made with silicone laser-cut feathers and gull skulls. A series of metallic Louis Vuitton dresses from the designer’s spring/summer 2016 collection feature hand-appliquéd ivory silk-synthetic net bonded with laser-cut sliver metallic strips twisted and turned to form eye-searing optical illusions. 

The exhibit, made possible by Apple and Condé Nast, is worth a view by fashionistas and technophiles alike. As Johnathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, puts it: “Both the automated and handcrafted process require similar amounts of thoughtfulness and expertise. There are instances where technology is optimized, but ultimately, it’s the amount of care put into the craftsmanship, whether it’s machine-made or handmade, that transforms ordinary materials into something extraordinary.”