Costume Institute’s Spring 2016 Exhibition Focuses on the Hand and the Machine in Fashion

Manus x Machina features more than 170 examples of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear, dating from the early 1900s to the present. The exhibition addresses the founding of the haute couture in the 19th century, when the sewing machine was invented, and the emergence of a distinction between the hand (manus) and the machine (machina) at the onset of industrialization and mass production.


Upper Level Gallery View: Case Study Wedding Ensemble, Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) for House of Chanel (French, founded 1913), autumn/winter 2014–15 haute couture, back view; Courtesy of CHANEL Patrimoine Collection © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It explores this ongoing dichotomy, in which hand and machine are presented as discordant tools in the creative process, and questions this relationship and the significance of the long-held distinction between haute couture and ready-to-wear.


Lower Level Gallery View: Pleating © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Robert Lehman Wing galleries, on the Museum’s first floor and ground level, have been transformed into a building-within-a-building using white scrims. The space houses a series of case studies in which haute couture and ready-to-wear ensembles are decoded to reveal their hand/machine DNA. A 2014 haute couture wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel with a 20-foot train occupies a central cocoon, with details of its embroidery projected onto the domed ceiling. The scuba knit ensemble, one of the inspirations for the exhibition, stands as a superlative example of the confluence between the handmade and the machine-made–the pattern on the train was hand-painted with gold metallic pigment, machine-printed with rhinestones, and hand-embroidered with pearls and gemstones.


Upper Level Gallery View: Embroidery Case Study Dress, Raf Simons (Belgian, born 1968) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947), spring/summer 2014 haute couture; Courtesy of Christian Dior Haute Couture © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition is structured around the traditional métiers of the haute couture. The first floor unfolds as a series of alcoves, examining the petites mains workshops of embroidery, featherwork, and artificial flowers. The ground floor space is arranged as an enfilade, examining pleating, lacework, and leatherwork. A room dedicated to toiles and the ateliers of tailoring (tailleur) and dressmaking (flou)—the traditional division of a maison de couture—anchors the ground-floor gallery. On both floors, traditional hand techniques are discussed alongside innovative technologies such as 3-D printing, computer modeling, bonding and laminating, laser cutting, and ultrasonic welding.


Upper Level Gallery View: Embroidery Case Study “L’Eléphant Blanc” Evening Dress, Yves Saint Laurent (French, 1936–2008) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947) , spring/summer 1958, haute couture; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1977 (1977.329.5a, b) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Exhibition Dates: May 5–August 14, 2016