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THE BEAUTIFUL, EVER-CONFIDENT gods of fashion and technology— from Anna Wintour to Jony Ive— gathered in the Metropolitan Museum’s classical Great Hall on Monday to mark the opening of the institution’s expansive new exhibition Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, which, as its name suggests, explores the intersection of hand and machine in the world of style.
The show, staged in and around the two-floor rotunda of the Met’s Robert Lehman Wing, contains over 150 pieces, dating from the early 20th century to the present, created by every elite fashion house on the planet, from Christian Dior to Valentino. Revolving around an extraordinary 2014 wedding dress by Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld, with a royal, 20-foot-long train, spaces are organized by traditional haute couture métiers—like embroidery, featherwork, pleating, and lacework—showcasing outfits created by hand together with those utilizing latter day methods like 3-D printing, computer modeling, laser cutting, and ultrasonic welding.
The range of techniques on display is not meant to differentiate the capabilities of digital versus craft or judge which is superior. On the contrary, says Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton, it's designed “to suggest a spectrum of practice whereby the hand and the machine are equal protagonists in solving design problems.”
Take Lagerfeld's wedding dress, for example. The extravagant gown was hand painted with gold metallic pigment, machine printed with auburn rhinestones, then hand-embroidered with sparkling pearls and gemstones. Wander the show’s celestial second floor and maze-like first, and you’ll encounter a variety of sartorial chimeras. Classical materials like gems and silk are digitally manipulated; high-tech plastics and metals are embroidered by hand. Bright, intricately hand-woven dresses from the 1930s look new; while digital creations from today seem vintage.
It’s easy to assume that advanced fashion production will soon be automated, with craft rendered a historical stepping stone on the path to technological nirvana. But the pendulum is swinging back fast. The most advanced pieces here incorporate both, and fashion seems to be a preview of the idea we keep rediscovering the hard way: that pushing the brakes on technology can actually make it more innovative.
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