The Met’s Costume Institute Gala has morphed into one of the year’s biggest celebrity fashion events, partly because the gala uses each year’s theme to inspire the fashion of its guests. We wrote about last year’s Met Gala (“China Through the Looking Glass”), here. While the theme did inspire some truly beautiful looks (think Rihanna’s yellow silk couture by Chinese designer Guo Pei), the exhibit itself was a hodgepodge of problematic Orientalism, dabbling in the same exoticization and fetishism that mark many designers’ relationships with the “mysterious East.”
This year, the Costume Institute turned to a new fashion frontier with its theme “Manus x Machina,” an exploration of the way that fashion and technology intersect. In the past, the line between high and low end fashion fell roughly along the handmade vs machine-made—think painstakingly hand-beaded couture gowns opposite factory-churned fast fashion. But this divide is no longer so clear. New technologies, culled from mass-production, enhance the creation of the most rareified designs (for example, the intersection of thermoplastic film and hand embroidery), forcing us to rethink the relationship between industry and what has traditionally, but perhaps not quite accurately, been classed as pure artistry and craft.
From the Costume Institute’s website: “With more than 150 ensembles dating from the early 20th century to the present, the exhibition will address 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 mass production. It will explore this ongoing dichotomy, in which hand and machine are presented as discordant tools in the creative process, and question the relationship and distinction between haute couture and ready-to-wear.”
On the Met Gala’s red carpet, celebrity looks proved that the conceptualization of technology in fashion hasn’t quite translated yet. The looks proved largely uninspiring (though, given last year’s many off-the-mark exoticized looks, maybe this was a blessing in disguise). Most guests who attempted to embody the theme tended to do so in clunky, visually obvious ways—lots of metallic breastplates to mimic robots, or sharp angles evocative of old sci-fi movie costumes. Gala co-chair Taylor Swift is being lauded for an “edgy” look that was actually lifted straight from the 1980s, Blade Runner meets go-go dancer. Others gave up entirely. Unsurprisingly, the Knowles sisters probably handled this visual concept best, providing two fairly abstracted approaches to textile manipulation that spoke directly to the theme without equating machines and hokey robot imagery.
In any case, the Met Gala and exhibit theme should prompt more thought on the future of fashion, which is an important metier of self-expression and also reflects our conceptions of tech’s interactions with our bodies. As wearables push us toward incorporating devices closer and closer to ourselves (think Google Glass, then think this contact lens with a built-in camera), the means of machine-production bleed into our ideas of clothing, art, and ourselves.