Manus x Machina: Finding Modernism in Fashion

Manus x Machina: Finding Modernism in Fashion

Andrew Bolton delivers his latest Met exhibition, Manus x Machina, with radical modernist force.

Andrew Bolton delivers his latest Met exhibition, Manus x Machina, with radical modernist force.

Text: Emily Kappes

Credit: The Met

Every year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds their yearly Costume Institute spring exhibition that aims to stretch the boundaries of fashion, educate a broad public, and offer exposure to established and upcoming design talent. The exhibitions have received a massive amount of press and attention after the blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty show in 2011. Most recently, the 2015 exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, received its fair share of attention with an entire documentary dedicated to its coverage, The First Monday in May.

The museum's latest tour de force, Manus x Machina, is one of the best, if not the best, displays of fashion to emerge from the mind of Costume Institute curator, Andrew Bolton. Exploring the relationship between man and machine within the context of clothes, the exhibit proudly displays fashion's most provocative, avant-garde designs within the framework of this dichotomy. 

However, while successful in its approach in addressing the man-made and machine-made juxtaposition, the exhibit has experienced few reviews that focus on thematic over the technological.

With the right education, it is easy to spot references to art and art history in designer collections, whether it be a sly one—through the cut, the color or the fabric, or even through a more direct means like Lisa Perry's Jeff Koons inspired pieces for her 2012 capsule collection. More often than not, fashion exhibitions (at least good ones) work to make these references apparent.

Where the exhibition strays from the rest is in its message. Manus x Machina aims to declare a place for fashion in the art world. But, rather than a polite request, it is a demand; a plea for viewers to see fashion as art. And it works. 

To do this, Bolton cleverly likens the modernist era of art history with the modernization of fashion itself.

Understanding the background of modernism is part of the puzzle. Towards the end of the 19th century, the world underwent significant modernization; the introduction of electric street lamps, photography, and coal factories - to name a few - appeared almost overnight.  And, as these new innovations were introduced, artists like Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte, Nadar, Arthur Stieglitz of the Ashcan movement, and Italian Futurist Giacomo Balli were quick to respond to these changes, and how these advancements affected their art. Given, these artists used entirely different mediums to make their art; but they addressed these changes, nonetheless. Monet began including smokestacks in his landscape, while Daumier challenged photography as an art form with his piece, Nadar Elevating Photography to the Height of Art.

Smokestacks in Monet's Waterloo Bridge, London, 1904.

It is this birth of modernism that Bolton references in the exhibition, illustrating changes in garment construction and technique with the introduction of technology through the juxtaposition of old and new couture. One of the best juxtapositions of time is a set of two gowns; one, a 2012-13 Dior piece, and the other, a court presentation piece. An accompanying quote from Raf Simons  cites the juxtaposition of old with new as something quintessentially modern. 

Credit: The Met

Bolton also pays homage to key figures in the modernist movement with his inclusion of particular pieces; Gareth Pugh’s A/W 2015-6 drinking straw dress resembles Marcel Duchamp’s Dada artwork & the use of everyday objects as art, while the long train of the exhibition's centerpiece, a Chanel F/W 2014-15 gown designed by Karl Lagerfeld, echoes ideas of social hierarchies and classicism, themes explored by Caillebotte.

In doing so, just like the artists of the modernist period, Bolton wishes to show that designers today adapt their art, responding to new technologies. 

The most indicative quote to be included in the exhibition is one from Lagerfeld, which reads, “Perhaps 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 changed the world.” This idea, quite literally, transcends creative forms. From painting, to photography, to fashion itself, rapidly changing forms of technology—including the introduction of the digital age—has re-defined art as a genre entirely. Fashion included.

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