Man vs. Machine

Possible Classroom Concepts:  Social Studies – Industrial Revolution, Inventions, Machines

Technology (3D Printers, Lasers), Science (Flower Parts)

Possible Art Concepts: Commercial Art History

Commercial Art (Fashion And Clothing Design)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an extensive collection of fashion and costumes. As with art on paper, constant exposure to light can destroy clothing, thus it cannot be on display for long periods of time. Once a year the Met creates an opportunity to share a portion of their fashion and costume collection in a themed exhibit and fundraising gala.  A couple of weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to visit this year’s exhibit entitled “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”.  That certainly is a mouthful! Allow me to break down the title for you. Manus means hand, as in sewn or created by hand. Machina, which I’m sure you can plainly see, stands for machine made. Over the years, there has been a certain discrepancy between haute couture’s (handmade)  and prêt-à-por·ter ‘s (ready to wear) stature. So, if you’re a Project Runway fan, you are familiar with the “haute couture challenge” or a comment like, “This designer’s work is very ‘ready to wear’!”  The handmade fashion has been traditionally considered more valuable because of it’s craftsmanship and the time involved in creating it. What this exhibit demonstrates is how today’s designers are using handmade, machine made, or a combination of handmade and machine made skills to create haute couture. (whatever it takes to achieve the desired result)  This exhibit also shows that fashion has consistently used innovations of its time in its designs.  The concepts are explained quite well in this video. See examples of work from the show here.

In the first room of the exhibit, are several copies of Diderot’s eighteenth century Encyclopedias opened to different fashion pages. This portion of the encyclopedia illustrates the science, skills and tools behind haute couture. Like other arts and trades, haute couture houses are made up of many different skilled artisans (called métiers in the fashion world). The exhibit shows examples of métier skills mentioned in the encyclopedia which are coincidentally still used today (embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, lacework, leatherwork, and pleating)  Modern technology, such as laser cutting and 3D printing are also highlighted. Each category has examples of the traditional way of completing a skill and a then examples of modern versions. For example, bird-of-paradise feathers are hand sewn onto silk to create this Yves Saint Laurent evening dress from 1969. While the Iris van Herpen’s 2013 dress, found among these images has machine made strips of laser-cut silicone feathers and silicone coated bird skulls applied to a cotton base.

You might adapt the child friendly explanation of the Met’s costumes and fashion found in this Family Guide, to incorporate this exhibit into your classroom curriculum. (You may have to go thru the following steps to get to the guide:  The Met> Learn> Kids and Family> Family Guides > What Should I Wear Today? Sorry, my link doesn’t seem to be working, but believe me it’s worth the steps to get there!)  To correlate with an inventions unit, students might identify the different fashion inventions found in the guide. (the bustle and baby crash helmet) Ask students where helmets are used today? Students could invent their own modern day helmets. Side note, the pleated collar fashion piece from this guide is included in the Manus x Machina Exhibit. You might also like to check out the invention and history of the hand sewing needle here and the colorful story behind the invention of the sewing machine  here or here or in the first five and a half minutes of this video.

This exhibit would also be a great inspiration for an Industrial Revolution unit.  The Haute Couture Houses do a good job of utilizing a division of labor. The garment passes among the necessary métiers until the garment is complete! I’m so jealous that I’m not teaching anymore. I would so teach the following lesson. First, I would divide the class into different métier groups. I would then adapt the following paper skill lessons:  emboideryfeatherworkartificial flowerslaceworkleatherwork (make the bark background), and pleating for corresponding métier groups. Using their skill, each métier group would make as many handmade papers as the the class period allowed. The next class period, with the choice of all the different handmade papers, the students each become designers and create a one of a kind collaged outfit on their mannequin. (You may have to enlarge the mannequin to 12″ x 18″ to be proportionate with paper samples.) See a collaged dress idea here and a sculptural example here. On the back of the back of their collage, students could list the different métier groups required to complete their outfit. If you wish to streamline this lesson, you could collect materials to symbolize different métier groups (i.e.- doilies/ lacemakers, brown paper/ leather, patterned paper/embroidery, flowered stickers/artificial flowers, cupcake liners/ pleating, etc.) and have the students construct a predesigned outfit [created by you or one of your students] assembly line style.

Let’s talk a bit about the technology part of the show. Technology of the late 1800s led to faster tanning processes which resulted in leather being included in fashion design. Back then all  the intricate leather cutouts had to be cut by hand. Today  this work is all done with lasers. New technologies have also created faux leather. Iris van Herpen  is a good example of a contemporary designer who uses technology in her fashions. Not only does she incorporate lazers, as mentioned above in the featherwork example, but she also utilizes 3D printers to create lace and exoskeleton-like structures  on her contemporary fashion pieces.

Do you teach a science unit on flower parts? Check out the Christopher Kane outfit among these images. This would be a fun image to pop your science unit.

Sometimes it takes thinking outside the box to motivate students. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, including baseball cards in math or social studies units might spark some sports minded students. For some other students, fashion might be just the inspiration to kindle an interest in science or social studies.

Stop by again real soon!



  1. KatieB · June 7, 2016

    I sent this article to Benjamin, as I think our grandson would appreciate it. Thanks, Kris. KT


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