Fashion in the Digital Age

August 03, 2016


On Friday, July 1st we decided it was time to see the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum with the provocative title, Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology before it ended on August 14th. It’s not smart to delay these things because there is so much to do in New York that a date can just fly by without one noticing.

On view from May 5th, this exhibit is at the Met’s Costume Institute in the Robert Lehman Wing galleries (first floor and ground level). Manus (Hand) x Machina (Machine) features more than 170 examples of haute couture and ready-to-wear dating from the early 1900s to the present. According to Thomas Campbell, the director of the Met since 2009, “fashion and technology are inextricably connected. More so now that ever before.”

Or, as Jonathan Ive, Chief Design Officer at Apple, the company that made this event possible notes, “Both the automated and handcrafted process require similar amounts of thoughtfulness and expertise. Ultimately, it’s the amount of care put into craftsmanship, whether it’s machine-made or handmade, that transforms ordinary materials into something extraordinary.”

“May” dress, Dior, machine-sewn, hand-finished white silk organza and net, hand-embroidered with flowers, clover and grass. Photo: courtesy of the Met

A close-up of the “May” dress embroidery. (This was one of my favorite pieces in the exhibit.) Photo: courtesy of the Met


In a long article carefully researched and beautifully written by Nathan Heller for Vogue, May 2016, the Costume Institute is described by recently retired curator in charge, Harold Koda, as “the girl who got all the dates but none of the respect.” This all changed in 2011 when curator Andrew Bolton presented Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty [see Adea’s The Legacy of Alexander McQueen].

Dress, Alexander McQueen, machine-sewn pale pink silk duchesse satin and nude silk georgette, hand-embroidered with pink enameled-metal flower petals. Photo: courtesy of the Met

This blockbuster redefined the institute’s relationship with the museum as a whole (661,509 visitors in three months, lines down the street). Last year the show China: Through the Looking Glass topped out at an astonishing 815,992 visitors. This makes it and the McQueen show among the 10 most popular exhibits in the Met’s entire history.


Manus x Machina began when 49-year-old Bolton found, while studying Yves Saint Laurent’s original Mondrian dress up close, that it was NOT hand-sewn as he had assumed, but rather made almost entirely by machine. “The only presence of the hand was the hem and part of the lining and the zipper,” he says. “I began thinking that, in actual fact, the gap between high-end ready-to-wear and couture is getting smaller.” 


The famous designer’s wedding dress confirmed that belief. “When the model walked down the runway,” says Bolton, “it looked like a neoprene wedding dress, without any seams at all, and then she turned around, and there was a 14 ft. train, all embroidered.”

Wedding ensemble, Chanel, hand-sewn white silk tulle and organza, hand-embroidered with 2,500 white silk camellias  Photo: courtesy of the Met

The pattern was computer-generated, but the embroidery was done by hand – 450 hours of workmanship. For the exhibit, Lagerfeld agreed to make an even longer version of the train, a breathtaking 20 feet. According to Lagerfeld, “It is laser cut, printed, hand painted, repainted and embroidered.”


Eureka! When Bolton realized that haute couture officially came into being during the SAME DECADE when the modern sewing machine was perfected, he began to understand that handwork and machine work had been playing off each other right from the start.

We fully intended to have drinks at the Roof Garden Bar after viewing the exhibit. Guess what? A downpour changed that plan very quickly. Instead, we went to The Great Hall Balcony Bar and treated ourselves to delicious Passion Fruit Margaritas.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick   

It used to matter if a dress was handmade or machine-made, at least in the haute couture. But now things are completely different. The digital revolution has changed the world.    

- Karl Lagerfeld


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