One of the best things about New York in the summer is that one gets to take in the costume exhibition at the Met. I’ve been a bit critical of shows at the Met, as I often feel like I’ve been bludgeoned over the head by the concept of the show, and in some ways, this one is no different. But it really does not matter, because this exhibition is a delight to behold, concept or no concept.
And the concept is not so much handmade against machine made as it is the use of both in haute couture and in ready-to-wear. In many of the examples, it was interesting to see how hand and machine are both crucial to the making of the garment. Still, when all was said and experienced, the hand techniques of traditional couture come out looking ever so fine.
But let’s see what you think. Because of the over-abundance of photos, I’m dividing this review into three posts.
The show is organized around six traditional garment maker’s crafts: embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, and leatherwork. There is also an area that goes into the two types of haute couture workrooms, the tailleur (tailoring) and the flou (dressmaking). Visitors are also treated to a selection of toiles, or muslins, the couturier’s pattern.
In the center of the exhibition is the dress seen in both photos above. It’s by Chanel, and was chosen to show the confluence of hand and machine work. The fabric of the dress is scuba fabric, and the train is silk that is printed, and is both machine and hand embroidered. You can barely see it in my photos, but on the dome there was a swirling projecting of the design of the train. These projections of details were used in various places in the exhibition.
This 1957 dress was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s debut collection at Dior. The dress is actually white, and though it looks like a free flowing trapeze design, it is actually quite structured as one would expect in a couture dress from the 1950s.
These two gowns are from Christian Dior’s 1949 fall collection, and it seems like the two are always displayed and photographed together. On the left is “Junon” and on the right, “Venus.” They were positioned next to an Alexander McQueen dress that I somehow neglected to photograph. A note, these two gowns along with at least ten others were on display in 1996 in the Met’s Haute Couture exhibition. I was surprised (and delighted) to see them.
Two designers, fifty years apart, hand embroidered coral on gowns. On the left is a couture dress by Givenchy, 1963. The ready-to-wear dress on the right is from Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
You can see that the Givenchy dress is almost all coral, while the McQueen one also has pearl beads and pieces of shell.
I cannot tell a lie – I adore this dress from Yves Saint Laurent, 1983. The dress without the sequins was made in the Saint Laurent atelier, and then was sent to Maison Lesage for the application of the sequins so that it looks as if there are no seams at all. It took 1500 hours to embroider this dress.
The sequins are actually silver instead of the gold in which they appear under the light, and can you tell how tiny they are? It is an amazing dress.
Here are two of Norman Norell’s famous sequined gowns. They almost look as if they could have come from the same collection, but this was a Norell standard. The dress on the left is from 1965, and the one on the right dates to 1953. Both are a combination of machine and hand work, as is much of upper level ready-to-wear.
In the background you can see three shiny dresses from Louis Vuitton, designed by Nicolas Ghesquiere. The surface of each is decorated with tiny applied strips of metal.
This set of three dresses really gets to the heart of the concept. The dress on the left is from Chanel, 1935. It is hand embroidered with sequins on silk. The middle dress is from Maison Margiela, 1996. It is not sequined at all. The “sequins” are actually printed onto the synthetic fabric. And the dress on the right is a sort of combination of the two, being embroidered on machine sewn silk, but then over-printed to get the design.
This 1966 dress is from Givenchy. The dress is machine sewn and hand finished, but what I thought was really interesting is that the feathers are glued onto the silk fabric.
How similar, but oh, so different are these two dresses! On the left, is a dress from Yves Saint Laurent, 1969. I really should have gotten a closeup of the feathers, as the work was exquisite. On the right, a 2013 dress from Iris van Herpen. The “feathers” are made from silicone and the three gull skulls are covered with silicone.
Okay, I know the the Van Herpen is not for everyone, and this is where the contrast between hand and machine widens into a deep divide. You can look at the previous comparisons and think, “I get it.” But here you might be tempted to think, “This is cool, but is it where we are in fashion right now?”
I think it is super that the Van Herpens and Gareth Pughs of the world are looking beyond conventional materials in fashion, but I think the point of the exhibition could be better made with things that are more in line with fashion. A good example is the Maison Margiela printed sequin dress above. We look back in time to Paco Rabanne. His metal and plastic clothes were creative and interesting, but they were also uncomfortable (according to Audrey Hepburn, at least) and we all did not end up wearing clothing made of metal and plastic bits.
I hate that my photos are so poor, but I had to include the dress on the left anyway. It’s Raf Simons for Dior, and the surface of the dress is completely covered in rooster feathers, glued to the silk organza base. On the right is an ensemble from Sarah Burton for McQueen, and is a cape and dress covered in ostrich and goose feathers, hand sewn onto silk. The design was based on that of a moth’s wing.
This dress is by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. It is haute couture, 2014. The decoration is an interesting mix of cut cellophane, plastic sequins, and black duck feathers. Machine sewn, hand embroidered, glued, and hand finished. Manus X Machina.
Next up, artificial flowers and pleating.
6 responses to “Manus X Machina, The Metropolitan Museum of Art”
So fascinating, Lizzie, thank you! How I would have loved to visit this exhibit with you. Reading your review is the next best thing.
So nice of you to say, Liza. We need to plan another exhibition date soon.
Fascinating. But in the end, I think I would rather have my sequins hand embroidered on silk than printed on synthetic fabric.
Well, as my friend Jill put it, “I’m not so sure I buy it.”
Oh, those Dior dresses!
That shelly McQueen must have been a literal pain in the butt to sit down in…
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