The Met's Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton reflects on his latest exhibition's reception, the future of manufacturing, fashion's lack of originality, and the changing nature of creativity.

Humans have long greeted new technology with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The specific technologies change — stocking frames one century, artificial intelligence another — but our reactions to them are rooted in similar fears and anxieties. Will they render the people who’ll come to rely upon them obsolete? Will they make us less moral, less recognizably human? The Met’s Costume Institute’s latest exhibition, Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology examines this dynamic, probing the relationship between the hand-made and the machine-made. As the exhibition enters its last couple weeks on display, we spoke with curator Andrew Bolton on how its been received, his feelings on the emerging technologies that could reshape the fashion industry, the relationship between plagiarism and creativity, and more.


We’re a little over three months into Manus x Machina‘s run. Has any part of the response to the exhibition, whether from critics or from the general public, surprised you?

I think what surprised me the most is how open-minded people have been, mainly critics but also visitors. I think as soon as you have the word ‘technology’ in the title, people come with expectations.

I think that people were expecting the exhibition to be about wearable technology. Before the show opened, I was worried that the title didn’t really match people’s expectations, because we had that issue with the exhibition on punk years ago. That exhibition really was about the influence of punk on high fashion, but people came expecting it to be about the street-style punk from the 1970s.

People have really embraced the thesis of the exhibition and, in a way, were relieved themselves that the show wasn’t about wearable technology. I think what they responded to the most is just the materiality. They really focused on the actual garments themselves and the constituent parts — what’s made by hand, what’s made by machine.


The exhibition includes technologies that are in the nascent stages of their development — 3d printing, automated construction techniques. Do you see us as being on the cusp of another industrial revolution?

I think people have been talking about the third industrial revolution for a while, really referring to the digital technology, the digital revolution. For me, technology and fashion have always gone hand-in-hand as far back as the first Industrial Revolution, where the impact really was on textile manufacturing. It’s always been the first art form to embrace new technologies, so, to me, it’s more of an evolution rather than another phase.


Do you think in general that we’re becoming more accepting of machine-made goods?

I think we’re becoming more aware of quality. I think people are now more appreciative of the impact of a machine rather than just the hand or vice-versa in terms of quality. There’s often been a fear around technology. I’ve always wanted to do a show on fear and clothing, and a part of that would focus on people’s reactions to new technology.

The way that fashion often embraces technology is very practical. When it comes to 3d printing, we’re not quite there yet in terms of the impact on fashion. I think it could be as revolutionary as the sewing machine eventually. It could democratize fashion. You could have a 3d printer in your home and it could actually print a skirt or jacket for you. It’s the ultimate form of couture but it’s not there yet in terms of technology.


In your introductory essay in the Manus x Machina book you mention that in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie they put dressmaking “on the same ethical footing as the arts and sciences.” Here you’re writing about the idea that a craft like dressmaking is as valuable as poetry or medicine, but the word “ethical” has taken on a different sort of meaning in the world of fashion these days. Now, it’s used in reference to the environmental and the human impact of its production. What does “ethical fashion” mean to you?

I means being responsible. It’s exactly how you phrased it. I think designers have a responsibility to the environment. Fashion is the worst polluter in the world, so there is a responsibility designers and manufacturers have in terms of the effect of fashion on the environment. Absolutely. I think it’s difficult for some designers. There are certain materials that are more responsible in terms of the environment but aesthetically, they’re not as appealing. It’s a balance that designers have to be aware of.


I read an interview last week with a man who lost his legs in a climbing accident and since has devoted himself to designing better prosthetic limbs. He said, “Technology is an extension of evolution.” When I was going through the volume that accompanied the show, a lot of the most technologically-advanced work that I saw — I’m thinking specifically of Iris Van Herpen’s pieces — looked remarkably organic. A lot her work, to me, sort of resembled snail shells, coral reefs, and other naturally-occurring structures. Do you chalk that up to intention on the designer’s part, or is there some sort of deeper relationship between technology and nature?

I think, partly, it’s practical. Talking to designers like Iris Van Herpen and Noa Raviv, they say the actual technique of 3d printing lends itself much more to organic forms. That’s part of it, but I think it’s also philosophical, too. Part of it is the idea of using what, for the moment, is the cutting edge of technology, to replicate nature.


You just mentioned Noa Raviv. There were a couple pieces in the exhibit by designers I wasn’t familiar with, like Noa and Maiko Takeda. I wonder how you came across their work and what about it merited inclusion in the exhibit.

Actually, I came across their work in the magazine Dezeen, which I love. I think it’s an incredible magazine.

I love how they’re navigating the hand and the machine. I think what’s interesting about Noa Raviv is how she came across 3d printing through a mistake in the computer. I’m obsessed by errors and whether the machine can make an error on its own, without human intervention. Can a machine be creative? Can a machine exist autonomously in terms of the act of creation? Can a machine make a mistake without human intervention?

Part of her collection was very much about the Platonic values involved in Greek statutery and the perfection of Greek statutery, the Platonic ideal of symmetry and perfection, and how that can be corrupted in the computer. I love that sort of negotiation between the two, between perfection and flaws, and the idea of human error and deliberate machine errors.

Someone like Takeda, I love the fact that her work seems so much based on the aesthetic of the machine and the aesthetic of technology when in actual fact it’s all made by hand. I think part of the show tries to challenge people’s expectations of the hand versus the machine in terms of the aesthetics of it. Sometimes you see a particular object and you think it’s entirely done by a machine but 80%-90% of it is done by hand. At the same time, you look at something by Christopher Kane and you think it’s all done by hand but it’s all done by machine. I like the fact that this show tries to challenge and confuse your expectations of the hand versus machine aesthetic.


I was surprised to learn that parurier floral was actually considered its own specific métier. Flowers, obviously, are just one of many naturally-occurring forms that we’re drawn to and find beautiful. Why do you think that fashion, in particular, is so fixated on flowers and floral motifs?

The metaphorical associations between flowers and femininity and sexuality have kept it so potent in terms of fashion.


There’s a great Christopher Kane piece from his Spring/Summer 2014 collection that you’ve included — the one that depicts a biology textbook cross-section of a flower.

Oh, yeah. I really love that one.


Me too. Can you tell me why that showed up in the exhibit?

Mainly because I felt it was a very contemporary version of two dresses by Christian Dior from the 1950s that we placed next to it. They’re made out of organza and embroidered with flowers, the height of this sort of feminine beauty. Then you have something like the Christopher Kane — the skirt’s also done in organza and you have the cross-section of the flower which is also a deliberate sexual provocation. To me, it’s reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. It’s associating flowers with sexuality as well as the anatomy of the flower with the anatomy of the female body. 


One of the things I kind of loved about that Kane piece is that it has a bit of a sense of humor, as well. The fashion industry can sometimes take itself quite seriously. Why do you think fashion isn’t funnier?

I think there’s a load of fun in fashion, actually. There’re certain designers who gravitate to whimsy and irony and pastiche — mainly European, I should say, not terribly many Americans. I think one of the exceptions, probably, is Thom Browne, who’s made a career out of these sort of visual puns. You think about Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, even Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons. There are certain designers who constantly engage with the humor in fashion. Other designers engage on a more intellectual level, like Martin Margiela, for example. A lot of Belgians very much approached fashion on a more intellectual level. Not that they’re mutually exclusive. John Galliano does it equally. McQueen did it equally as well.


Were there any particular pieces or designers included in the exhibit that you feel aren’t adequately appreciated?

I think there are designers who have been forgotten — Issey Miyake, for example. I think people forget how hugely influential he’s been, not just in terms of fashion and technology, but in terms of redefining what we mean by fashionablity, notions of identity, notions of gender within fashion, and really trying to make people think differently about fashion. I’m so glad that people are responding to him in the exhibition, because I think people really haven’t given him the due credit he deserves.


You did a great interview with Document recently, with William Gibson. In it, you referred to fast fashion as “dystopian.” Could you explain why it feels dystopian to you?

Oh my gosh. What fast fashion emphasizes is that fashion is inherently disposable, and that designers — and you’re even seeing this with the big brands — are also disposable. It’s not allowing designers to reflect on their achievements or their failures, not allowing them to develop ideas, not allowing them to engage with the creative act of fashion. I feel it’s just about consumption, and just about disposability, so I find that incredibly dystopian. It sort of takes away the artistry of fashion, so I find it deeply depressing.

Although, I like the democracy of fast fashion. I like that fact that fashion can be available on a relatively cheap level to a mass audience. I just find the fact that it has a negative impact on creativity.


There are a bunch of fashion designers who just came out in support of Apple in their design patent battle with Samsung. Part of the democratic aspect of fast fashion is that it allows runway styles to be copied very quickly and made accessible to a larger group of people. Do you think we can find a balance between protecting designers’ intellectual property and allowing people without a ton of disposable income to access the types of styles and aesthetics that we’re seeing on the runways? Is it even possible?

I don’t know. It’s a good question, actually. I think that culture is inherently plagiaristic, so I’ve never had a problem with plagiarism, to be honest. I think that the author died years ago. The idea of authorship I find questionable, even when it comes to high fashion.

Fashion is becoming very much more about multiple voices creating. You have the designer, you have the stylist, you have the pattern-makers. It’s a collaboration, and it’s deeply, deeply communicative. That idea of one singular voice, I think, is becoming less and less relevant in fashion.

I always find what’s most interesting is individual style and how people work with that, how people work with not just fast fashion but also vintage fashion, DIY, and how they put themselves together. I’m seeing that less and less in fashion — the idea of originality, basically. I’m finding originality more and more difficult to see, really, both on the street and on the runway. We’re living in a world that’s becoming incredibly homogenous, and I sort of long for the time where originality is cherished more than anything else.


What do you think would have to change for originality to be appreciated, or…

I think people are complacent. When you think about moments of immense creativity, it’s usually in moments of economic depression. You think about the ‘70s in London with punk. One of the most economically depressed times in England but one of the most creative times in terms of individual style. The same in New York with the East Village crowd. I think often, when we’re in times of economic crisis, you do find much, much, much more personal freedom and individual expression. I think you always need something to fight against for individuality to triumph, so to speak.

Maybe it’s happening in other cultures where there’s more of an oppressive economic system. I think Japan is still really interesting, in terms of street style. The cosplay that is happening in Japan is totally fascinating to me, and notions of how they use fashion to express really complex ideas about identity. I just see that less and less, but I do still see it being expressed in the streets of Tokyo.


Yeah, I completely agree. I was in Tokyo for the first time last December and was just blown away.

It’s amazing, and it’s been like that for a long time now. At least the last 15 years, it’s been sort of the center, I think, of individual expression.


In that same Document interview you expressed some dismay with how conservatively 3d printing is being used, specifically in how it’s used to create garments that we’re already totally familiar with. Which aspect of modern dress would you like to see challenged or re-imagined by 3d printing or other next-gen technologies?

I’m not a great fan of sci-fi sort of clothing. I think, fundamentally, it still has to function as clothing, but it’s more in terms of inventiveness. When I think about someone like Rei Kawakubo, to me, she’s extraordinary, because her clothes still are rooted in functionality, but they’re deeply, deeply creative and original in terms of the conceptual layerings. It’s more about ideas, I think, than anything else. You know, we have access to this extraordinary technique that can create different shapes, and different forms, and different functionalities, but it’s just not being used for that.

At the moment, I know the material isn’t there. A lot of the garments that are being produced in 3d printing are exoskeletons because of the rigidity of the material, so I think there needs to be some advances in the materials for us to get the point of rethinking fashion. It’s less about the components than challenging notion of functionality, challenging notions of decoration, challenging notions of form and function. I think it’s those sort of ideas I wish they were challenging more.


What do you hope the lasting impact of Manus x Machina will be?

I think it’s what I tried to set out to achieve, which was to question the values associated with hand-made and machine-made. Traditionally, the hand has been something that is more about luxury, more about individualism, more about originality. On the flip side, something machine-made is seen as something about homogeneity, mass-production, dehumanization, inferiority, and that simply isn’t the case. I think that there’s times when to achieve something by machine is more time-consuming and more expensive than the hand-made. I think what I would love the exhibition to do is to constantly challenge those associations between the hand-made and the machine-made.