Prior to the unveiling of his first show as Curator-in-Charge of the Met’s Costume Institute, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology,” Andrew Bolton had a few reservations. “I was worried that people’s expectations would be different from what I was presenting in the exhibition,” Bolton explains sheepishly over the phone in his warm British accent. “I thought they would be looking for garments that breathed or garments that told you how hot you were, cutting edge technology that you see in sportswear and in medicine too. I love all that. But the show really wasn’t about it.”
The Maschinenmensch, the automaton in Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, is an apt avatar for the myriad themes Bolton explores in the exhibition, supported by Condé Nast and sponsored, fittingly, by Apple (though there’s nary a wearable in sight): the spectrum and synergy of human and machine labor in the art of crafting designer fashion. Bolton is the brains behind some of the Costume Institute’s most recent hit shows, including last year’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” and the 2011 retrospective of the work of Alexander McQueen, “Savage Beauty,” which clocked in over six hundred thousand visitors. “Manus x Machina” is an in-depth examination of technique and process.
Divided into the traditional haute couture métiers, as outlined in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Enlightenment-era Encyclopédie (embroidery, lace work, leather work, et al.), Bolton probes the ever-narrowing gap between the sophisticated technologies used in haute couture and prêt-a-porter. Three-dimensional printed pieces (a Lesage-embroidered Chanel suit; a skeletal Iris van Herpen ensemble) juxtapose galleries devoted to feather work (a ’60s Saint Laurent confection makes a sharp contrast to another van Herpen piece, this time engineered out of silicone plumes); a machine-sewn, hand-embroidered floral Dior gown from 1953 is a foil for a Christopher Kane translucent skirt from S/S 2014 adorned with pop-up stamen and pistil anatomy diagrams.
But Bolton’s thesis comes together in the opening of the exhibition where a cathedral-like dome has been erected in the museum’s first-floor Lehman galleries to house a sculpted scuba-knit wedding gown from Karl Lagerfeld’s 2014 Fall-Winter haute couture collection for Chanel. With Brian Eno’s elegiac “An Ending (Ascent)” piping in, the seamless garment sits on a platform like a medieval coronation gown. The twist, though, is the computer-generated hand-embroidery of the train that took 450 hours of labor from the atelier. Lagerfeld extended it to twenty feet for the exhibition.
Though Bolton demurs, “We never set out to do blockbusters,” “Manus x Machina” has been extended through September 5th. Interview spoke to Bolton last week.
COLLEEN KELSEY: How do exhibition themes come about for you? What’s your typical development process there?
ANDREW BOLTON: It varies in a way. At the Met, we always strive to offer a program of exhibitions that are dynamic, that have a relevance to a contemporary audience. That’s something that’s always in the back of my mind. We need to do a show that reflects where we are, not just within fashion, but also within culture in general. We’re trying to come up with an idea that will appeal to the collective conscious. Sometimes it might be focused on one designer, like Charles James. Or Paul Poiret or Chanel. Or sometimes it’s more thematic, like punk. Other times, it’s about technique or process, which is what “Manus x Machina” is about.
With “Manus x Machina,” it was a massive, massive topic to cover. It was actually really daunting to begin with. I probably looked at well over 5,000 pieces individually to decide on their inclusion in the exhibition or not. But, to me, it’s really important to do that because it refines your thesis, it develops your themes. It’s like writing a book. You have your over-arching narrative. In this particular case, it was how designers are rectifying the hand-made, the machine-made, and the design process. From there, you divide it into chapters. I am a great believer that the objects have to tell the story. The garments have to enter into a dialogue with each other.
With this particular one, I was struggling for a while to come up with a structure that would make sense to the visitors. It has to be educational but also entertaining. Those curators who say, “Oh, entertainment is a judge-y word in exhibitions,” I disagree. Obviously, you have to educate them. But you have to entertain them, and you have to try to make them think differently about fashion, about whatever you’re presenting. That’s something I think is really key. People have to walk into a space and understand what your theme is without reading the labels. They have to read it visually. And if they want to, they can find out more information by reading the labels. But you have to enter the exhibition and the theme has to be apparent and the objects have to tell their story and be visually exciting. Otherwise, I think you’ve lost your audience.
KELSEY: So how did structuring the exhibition around the Diderot Encyclopedia come about?
BOLTON: One of the underlying premises for the exhibition was to come up with a new paradigm in fashion that’s not so oppositional, not just hand/machine, but also ready-to-wear and haute couture. I really felt strongly that the gap between haute couture and high-end designer wear was diminishing through the shared usage of practices—hand or machine. So, then I thought, I really want to structure around the métiers of haute couture. What was exciting to me about Diderot was that Diderot’s Encyclopedia was the first time that fashion was considered an art form. It was the first time that fashion was placed on the same level footing as the other arts and sciences. So it was radical in its day to do that. Particularly with the first show I was doing as the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, I was deeply conscious of giving a message. Not a manifesto, so to speak, but a message of what I want our shows to be moving forward. I wanted once and for all to put an end to the debate, “Is fashion art?” by showing the artistry in fashion. So what I wanted to do was to create this temple—a cathedral—to the artistry and duty of fashion. I thought it was interesting for people who maybe weren’t too familiar with haute couture to realize that these métiers had been in existence since the 18th century, and they still define haute couture and prêt-a-porter today. We should move on from, “Is fashion art?” and start asking different questions about: “Where’s the future of fashion heading? What’s the significance of fashion? What does it say to us?”
KELSEY: The opening of the exhibition, the Chanel wedding gown, is an encapsulated case study of that.
BOLTON: Completely. And as you walk through the exhibition, most pieces in the show are an amalgamation of the hand and the machine. There are very few examples that are exclusively handmade or exclusively machine-made. The Chanel was just one of the inspirations for the exhibition. I was at the Chanel show, and I remember clearly the model walking down in this garment that, to me, initially looked like neoprene. It’s actually scuba knit—completely synthetic material—but very little embroidery on the front. It was super-modern. And then she turned around and you have this incredible train that initially I thought was all hand embroidered. It’s only when I was talking to Karl [Lagerfeld] that I realized it was the amalgamation of the hand and the machines. That’s really one of the inspirations for this show. And I still get goosebumps when I walk into the sort of dome area of the exhibition. Every time I look at that piece. I really feel the objects have an effect, objects that are well designed and have emotionality have this affecting presence. I really feel that with the wedding dress. It has the ability to move people emotionally. In the first week or two that the show opened, a man had proposed to his girlfriend, now fiancé, in front of the dress.
KELSEY: Were there any key designers or pieces that were a must-include at the outset?
BOLTON: One hundred percent. I wanted to focus on designers who have consistently engaged with the hand and machine as a philosophical practice, and designers who have continually tried to blur the boundaries between the two. Because part of the show is not to present the hand and machine as polar opposites but to show that it’s a spectrum of practice. So that was very much to my fore. People like Nicolas Ghesquière, Miuccia Prada, Hussein Chalayan, Iris van Herpen, Karl Lagerfeld, Sarah Burton. There’s certain designers that, sometimes they err towards the hand like the Valentino duo. But even that is fascinating. And the interviews in the catalogue, theirs was very interesting when they talk about the hand, it’s not just the hand as an abstract concept. It’s a specific hand and a specific person who’s making those pieces. So even in their atelier, if they want something with lightness, they might give it to someone who has a lighter hand than somebody else. It’s not just about the hand as an abstract concept. It’s the hand in specific and the one individual. So that was very interesting.
KELSEY: In terms of chronology, how did you decide to cap it off at these early haute couture pieces rather than go back to the 18th century?
BOLTON: The birth of haute couture was really in the mid-19th century. And the haute couture was made possible with the invention of the sewing machine in a very paradoxical manner, in a way. So, I wanted to start really from the mid-19th century. One of our earliest pieces is a 1870s wedding dress. In terms of contemporary fashion, it really did begin, arguably, with Paul Poiret in the beginning of the 20th century. We did away with the corsets and began to experiment with alternative practices. So something I really wanted to do was really focus really from the mid-19th century onwards.
KELSEY: How much does keeping up with current collections influence your curatorial approach?
BOLTON: It absolutely is critical. Even if we do a historical shot of the 18th century, we try and come up with an idea that’s reflected in contemporary fashion. With a big theme like sex, death, rites of passage…I think it’s important that I follow every single collection that comes out absolutely religiously, because you get ideas from that too. You see where fashion is heading. Or if it’s stagnating. When you think about fashion, fashion is about being relevant. It’s an ephemeral art form and that’s its power, the fact that it is ephemeral. Often that’s been seen as something that is negative in fashion, and that’s often prevented it to be seen as an art form because it’s this ephemeral art form. But I love that about it. It’s very inspiring as well.
MANUS X MACHINA: FASHION IN THE AGE OF TECHNOLOGY IS ON VIEW UNTIL SEPTEMBER 5 AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART