By now all fashionistas are familiar with the ornate beaded train of the Chanel wedding dress that is the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Manus X Machina, fashion in an age of technology. While the dress accurately portrays the spectacular craft on display, what isn’t immediately obvious is the question the show poses: What exactly IS technology?
The show looks at the increasingly blurry line between hand- (manus) and machine- (machina) made garments, a line that has historically separated haute couture from ready-to-wear. The train of the wedding dress, for instance, was first hand-painted, then machine-printed with rhinestones, then finally hand-embroidered with gemstones; details impossible to tell, or in many cases even research, outside of the context of this show.
The exhibit is divided into sections focusing on different techniques, including lace, embroidery, featherwork, and pleating. As you walk through the space, each dress is demystified by explanations of the techniques used. It’s easy for anyone walking into the show, which is housed in a specially built mini-cathedral of white screens, to see the beauty of the garments and be overwhelmed by the sheer intricacy of the work. But amid all of the ornate Chanel and Dior, one designer stands out as embodying the tension between man-made and machine-made, begging you lean in to solve the mystery of how each of her garments came to be.
Iris Van Herpen is a Dutch born designer who has been 3D printing dresses since 2009. Her shows are electrifying events, employing robotic arms and delivering shrink-wrapped models to arouse audience curiosity. Her most recent collection visualized sound waves with pearl-coated plastics and hand-pleated gowns. Often pigeonholed as a technology-focused designer, the dresses included in Manus x Machina prove that while Van Herpen's techniques may be unorthodox, her use of mechanized labor does not lessen the power of her art.
The garments that come out of her atelier, which must at times feel more like a laboratory, look like they come from the future because they're entirely unlike anything you’ve seen before. Her materials range from hand-cut silicone to translucent stainless steel fabric, and her techniques include laser cutting and magnetic sculpting.
Take this dress from her Spring/ Summer 2015 collection, in which she mixed rubber with iron filings, allowing her to ‘grow’ a texture with magnets that somehow looks both natural and surreal. Using science to achieve the same level of intricacy as traditional couture gowns, the dress looks like the surface of some unknown planet.
This dress, included in the lace section of the exhibit, was created with stereolithography. The 3D printing process, most often used for rapid prototyping, uses a laser to draw on the surface of a vat of liquid resin, turning it into a semi-translucent solid. Gowns aren't an obvious use case for the technique, but watching this sculptural object emerge from a vat of liquid must have invoked the magic of watching fabric emerge from the first fully automated loom over a hundred years ago. How different really is a 3D printer from a loom?
There was a time when the humble needle was itself a piece of technology, giving the human hand dexterity and force it did not naturally possess. From needles to sewing machines to synthetic fibers, fashion has always innovated new tools. Van Herpen is pushing fashion to embrace the tools of the modern age. She doesn't see herself as technology-focused; the new techniques simply mean that her visions of what's possible are less limited.
“Inspiration for me does not come from technology; I really see it as a tool,” she told Vogue earlier this year. This is not tech for tech's sake, this is technology used to exalt the human form.
What Van Herpen's work brings to the fore is that the hand is not the opposite of the machine, that instead they can and must work together. Intention is what makes technology a tool, whether you are using it to organize your life or fashion a work of art.
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.