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The Met’s Manus x Machina Sets Out to Prove Fashion Matters

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Fashion is important. If you're choosing to read this review, this is something you probably know. Everyone wears clothes, and the what, why, and how of it all matters.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute spring exhibition shouts this from the metaphorical rooftops. The title of the show may be "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology," but in many ways that's beside the point. The exhibit seeks to explore the tension between the handmade and the machine-made, and by extension, haute couture and prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear. All you need to know is that the lines are as blurred as they have ever been.

Really, this is an exhibit about remarkably beautiful clothes that are aesthetically, technically, and historically significant. These are items of consequence, fashion itself is of consequence, pay attention.

Architectural firm OMA built what Met director Thomas Campbell called "a building-within-a-building, a cathedral of sorts" and the result is a stunning place of worship rendered in white scrim. (Not for nothing, the clean, white space — notably absent are the Costume Institute's typically overwrought vignettes and distracting mannequins — evokes the design principles of exhibit sponsor Apple.)

You first enter a soaring domed atrium that houses a Chanel haute couture wedding dress with a 20-foot train that stands as example and showpiece; details of the digitally-manipulated embroidery are projected onto the ceiling. Walk through any one of the atrium's archways and the exhibit continues in the round, with dress forms outfitted in Balenciaga, McQueen, and Prada presented in alcoves that line a circular path.

The structure is at once imposing and ethereal. The scrim means the temporary walls are transparent; you can see into and out of the exhibit, depending on your vantage point. Brian Eno's ambient "An Ending (Ascent)" is on loop. It's meant to feel like a religious experience.

It's also meant to be an intellectual exercise — this is certainly the nerdiest exhibit the Costume Institute has ever mounted. Try this on for size: that central domed atrium, the one with the Chanel? It acts as an abstract for the exhibit, explaining its theme by way of Encyclopédie, the French enlightenment text by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert.

Encyclopédie grouped the métiers, or trades, of dressmaking with the arts and sciences, a provocative move that elevated fashion and made the case that the creativity and technical expertise necessary for making clothes put dressmaking on par with traditional scholarly activities. Leather-bound volumes of Encyclopédie are displayed around the atrium, each opened to a page introducing a different métier: tailoring, lace, featherwork.

These métiers are how the exhibit galleries are organized, and the wall texts provide extreme detail about construction processes. So much has gone into the exhibit's 170 garments, whether they be actual couture or avant-garde ready-to-wear, and if you're one to geek out over how cellulose acetate and thermoplastic film have advanced hand embroidery, there's plenty to soak up.

But for as much esoterica is involved, "Manus x Machina" is also wildly accessible to those who have never followed fashion in any way. Just looking at the clothes is a delight, from Hussein Chalayan's fiberglass "floating dress" to technicolor iterations of Issey Miyake's trademark pleats to an Iris van Herpen creation that involves actual bird skulls. There are also historical gems like a trapeze dress from Yves Saint Laurent's first Dior collection, and a Madame Grès gown from 1935. There's a whole wall of Chanel suits that range from '60s bouclé to a 3D-printed fall 2015 version.

These things are fun to look at, and reading even a small fraction of the information accompanying the work leaves quite an impression: this is significant, fashion is important.

Perhaps this is why making your way through the exhibit can feel exhausting. There is so much to see, and so much to learn, and once you properly digest the thrilling top floor, there's still a basement-level set of galleries to take in. (Those galleries also happen to be less visually compelling, in terms of both exhibition design and the pieces contained therein.)

It's the kind of exhibit you may not want to gulp down all at once, and the kind that is surely worth repeat visits, but also the kind that will most definitely be mobbed all summer long. Which, yes, while annoying, is just another reminder that this stuff? It matters.

"Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 5 through August 14.

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