The feathers are creamy and stroke-able, but actually made out of silicone by Iris Van Herpen just two years ago. Beside it, a similar feathery outfit turns out to be an Yves Saint Laurent couture gown from 1969, when each Bird of Paradise plume was glued on to nude silk gauze by hand.
Man or machine in fashion? That is the question posed by Andrew Bolton, Curator in Charge of the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” opens in May with the possibility, since Apple is the primary sponsor, that the celebrity crowd on the red carpet steps will embrace Silicon Valley as well as Hollywood. Ever since the subject of the new Met show was announced, people have been asking what precisely is the status of the human hand versus high tech in the fashion world.
“People may hear the word ‘technology’ and think it’s all about ‘wearables’,” said Andrew Bolton, the exhibition’s curator, who was previewing the annual big show. “The Met has always been a museum about making and we have long records of investigating subjects of various distinctions between art, craft and design,” Bolton said.
According to Bolton, the show will challenge the conventional dichotomy of hand vs. machine and study the complex relationship between the artisanal and the technical. I would have added another definition: the wearable. I have looked in depth at Iris Van Herpern’s work, visiting her in her native Amsterdam, and this is not “wearable tech”, but rather, as defined by a piece of her work at the Met, “laser-cut silicone feathers on cotton embellished with silicone-cored gull skulls with glass eyes”.
The famously successful Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met, “Savage Beauty”, has proved that presenting the artistically extraordinary to a museum can both challenge the visitors’ mindsets and rev up demand.
But in conversation with Bolton, I found that he wanted to explore the hidden aspects of technology in what we can or might wear. “It is much more about the invisibility,” the curator said, although he was standing in front of a display of very visible dresses by Hussein Chalayan and Christopher Kane on the subject of pollination; and an extraordinary embellished wedding gown from Chanel.
Evening Dress, Yves Saint Laurent, A/W 1969-70
“It’s about trying to come up with a new paradigm in a way that goes beyond haute couture and ready-to-wear,” Bolton said. “Distances [between the two] are really coming closer and closer together.”
"Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" is at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 5 May to 14 August 2016