The Madness that is Manus x Machina


Approximately 3,394 miles separate the two of us this summer, as Katherine gallivants around Spain for her study abroad program and Maia frolics through the Boston suburbs for her internship. Though distance and a hefty time difference keep us apart, we sought a way to stay connected that was more powerful than sporadic texts and sweet comments on each other’s Instagram photos: We went to Manus x Machina at the MET. Not together, unfortunately. Rather, weeks apart. But knowing we both traversed those hallowed halls and ogled at the same garments made us feel back as a team, with one view, one take away. Almost as if we were at one of our classic Crema Cafe meetings, sipping on hot chocolates, snacking on pastries, and laughing about how we always think of the same things.

The improbable task of writing this joint post over Google Drive and Whatsapp has made us realize we are more alike than we previously imagined. We both walked away from this exhibit, curated by Andrew Bolton, with oddly similar thoughts, vibes, and commentary. Without further ado, this is what we saw and what we have to say about it ― a cross-ocean commune of thoughts and sentiments:

Upon entering, we weren't exactly sure what we expected, and the exhibit offered far more than we anticipated — by sheer volume, size, categorization, and grandiosity.

The exhibit begins with the famous wedding ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for the House of Chanel. Worn as a finale piece by none other than Cara Delevingne and made of a scuba material, baring a train whose pixelated print was extended some twenty feet for the exhibition, the dress provides the ideal platform for which to showcase the dichotomy of the exhibit, that is, between man and machine. While the gown constituted the signature piece for an equally signature Chanel collection, it was not necessarily couture in the traditional sense (note the plaque’s quote from Lagerfeld describing the dress as, “haute couture without the couture”), in that it did not require the hours of intensive hand labor characteristic of couture fashion. In fact, the dress was nearly entirely of machine creation, the crux lying in the fact that it was birthed, ultimately, of the human mind.

Though the wedding dress occupied its own spacious, dome-shaped room, the remainder of the pieces seemed rather cramped in the narrow and dimly lit concentric hallways (and this is why we ask you to excuse the blurriness of some of our photos ― the low lighting and fighting of elbow jabs didn’t make for prime photographic conditions). Other than this human to human physicality, the main backdrop of the exhibit is a choral ensemble of sorts ― an oddly pious and holy sounding "ohm" that seems more in place at a church as opposed to an exhibit on fashion. The cathedral music paired with the sheer beauty of the pieces lent to an overwhelmingly spiritual experience for the both of us. Then again, that may have been the exhibit's intention — to stretch beyond the physical platform of fashion and couture and to define the intersect between man and machine, technology and antiquity, in a worldly sense. Regardless, the music built perhaps the greatest contrast in its being the soundtrack to the chaos that surrounded and filled the exhibition: the crowds, the narrow corridors, the somewhat burdensome demanding of one's attention. If fashion is for the consumer, it seems that the consumer was now the consumed — we were entrenched both in art and in obligation.  

For us, this feeling of obligation had a profound effect on the overall flow of the exhibit. We felt ourselves caught in an ambivalent state between viewing and photographing. Both desiring to take the exhibit in and to still document it, we ended up viewing much of it through our lenses ― just as the myriad people around us were: locked behind phone screens and camera viewfinders. Such an unfortunate realization captured the very essence of the exhibit. Man and machine, the intersection, the consumption. In this case, machine consumed man. No longer were we free to peruse at our own ease and pleasure, rather, we were caught behind our iPhones and in between the shoulders of countless strangers.

(Side note from Maia: when I left the MET, I was walking behind two schoolgirls, around age 10 at max, in matching uniforms, skipping and singing the most ominous song: “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor and I don’t like it very much.” The song, while terrifying had this occurred at night or in a horror movie, seemed to aptly echo my sentiments about tourist centric claustrophobia that I of course added to nonetheless.)

However, we did not allow the cramped quarters and 'rat race' quality of the exhibition to entirely jade our viewing of its constituent pieces, as it ultimately was an incredible experience. (We couldn't help but imagine how beautiful it might be to see a runway showing featuring an amalgam of all of the garments). We loved the organization of the exhibit; the rooms and pieces were divided thematically ― pleats, prints, dyes, so on ― so as to highlight the process, specifically the genesis (or lack there of) it has undergone with the advent of mechanization, behind each's construction. We were surprised, namely, by the florals. Florals for Manus x Machina? Groundbreaking. If you, our readers, recall our Met Gala review post, we found ourselves slightly confused at the inclusion of floral ensembles amidst the Gala's more futuristic garbs. However, upon viewing the floral pieces in their intended exhibit, thus witnessing their place on the spectrum of man and machine, we finally understand that the florals fit the theme quite well, quite seamlessly if you will. The flowers adorning most of these pieces were sculpted using gelatin in order to increase malleability and stability. They were crafted using multi step processes like metal presses and cold water baths. In the end, most were hand sewn on to their base in order to both anchor the flowers to one another and secure them to the final piece. Through the exhibition, we came to see the flowers in a different light ― one that underscored the delicate balance between man and machine. Manus x Machina was not an exhibit on futuristic fashion, a tribute to automaton-like pieces, it was a tribute to the method and technique that goes behind modern couture, a tribute to the malleability not only of flowers adorning gowns but of ideas, notions, and concepts ― how the very meaning of couture changes as technology improves, as the overlap between man and machine becomes even more ambiguous.  

Overall, pushing aside the cramped quality of the space itself, we left with a truer understanding of the exhibit’s intended dichotomy. As the introduction states:

“Instead of presenting the handmade and the machine-made as oppositional, this exhibition suggests a spectrum or continuum of practice, whereby the hand and the machine are equal and mutual protagonists in solving problems, enhancing design practices, and advancing the future of fashion.” - MET plaque

We initially expected the exhibit to be a showcase of dresses indicative of mechanization and the future (think Jordan Dunn’s metallic gown and other robotic homages). But really, the exhibit was meant to showcase the process as much as, if not more than, the product. While the flow of the exhibit felt rushed at times (in the sense that we could only dedicate some five seconds looking at a piece before being shuffled on to the next) we felt ecstatic to have gone and seen it ― especially considering it gave us the overarching feeling of being together, even when many, many miles apart.

Xx, Katherine & Maia