The Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, in her 2010 collection “Crystallization,” was the first person to send a 3-D-printed haute couture garment down the runway. A top assembled from nine scalloped, shell-like sections cantilevered over the model’s shoulders and chest like a futuristic shield. That high-tech piece, printed layer by layer from polyamide, is one of many being presented as wearable sculpture in “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” through May 15 at the High Museum in Atlanta.
The show, the museum’s first foray into displaying fashion, is also the first solo museum exhibition in the United States devoted to Ms. van Herpen. She is at the forefront of a wave of designers integrating new technology — like 3-D printing, laser cutting and digital knitting and weaving — into traditional hand processes to achieve radical shapes, new materials and clothes that respond to the body itself.
Museums are clearly paying attention to the impact of technology on fashion, with “#techstyle” on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 10, and “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on May 5. The design curator Ron Labaco has witnessed a wider institutional acceptance of this trend just since he included a few digitally produced works of fashion in his 2013 exhibition “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.
When Mr. Labaco was organizing that show, he said he was told by a director of a European fashion museum, “There isn’t enough significant movement in the direction of digital fabrication in fashion to even warrant a chapter in the catalog.”
Mr. Labaco said, “Now we’re moving away from the idea that this is a novelty that is just a flash in the pan, to artists who are really dedicating their lives to exploring what is possible.”
The High has three van Herpen garments in its permanent collection, according to Sarah Schleuning, the show’s curator, who said, “Certainly the biggest consumer of her pieces is museums.” The Metropolitan owns five, and the acquisition by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, of her barnacle-like ensemble, 3-D printed in collaboration with Neri Oxman (who specializes in biomimicry), was the departure point for “#techstyle.”
“We’re trying to present both the present and future of fashion,” said Michelle Finamore, one of the curators of the Boston exhibition, which has works by 30 emerging and established designers, including Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Mary Katrantzou. “These new technologies are having an effect not only on the way designers design, but also on the way we interact with our garments.”
The Museum of Fine Arts commissioned the “Twitter dress” from the London-based CuteCircuit. Visitors can send tweets from their phones, or artworks from the museum’s collection (selected on an iPad attached to the display) that will then appear across the 10,000 micro-LEDs in the dress’s fabric (and it’s machine-washable). Also on view is a dress by Pauline van Dongen that is embedded with solar panels that can charge a cellphone after two hours in the sun. A top-and-shorts ensemble by Ying Gao is covered in dressmaker pins that move in a shimmering, undulating fashion when voice-activated.
If “#techstyle” is focused on the tomorrow of garments as gadgets, “Manus x Machina” will be more a historical retrospective of hand and machine as equal players in the design process.
“If you look back at the invention of the Jacquard loom or the sewing machine, fashion has always been defined by the latest technologies,” said Andrew Bolton, who organized the show at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan. It will present more than 100 examples of haute couture and ready-to-wear garments from 1880 to 2015.
The show will challenge the traditional dichotomy of handmade and machine-made. “Usually the handmade is representative of luxury and individuality, and the machine-made is presented as mediocrity,” Mr. Bolton said. “I don’t think those associations are accurate, particularly in the 21st century, when designers are borrowing from both practices.”
Every garment in the exhibition will have what Mr. Bolton calls a “DNA reading” displayed on monitors, showing which components are handmade and which are machine-made, including close-up details that aren’t necessarily visible. Chanel’s “little black dress” from 1926, for instance, was made from a jersey material that had been restricted to men’s undergarments but gained a new sophistication when the designer used it here, with hand-sewn couture details. “At the time, Vogue compared it to the mass-produced Ford Model T, which signified quality but also suggested the aesthetics of the industrial production line,” Mr. Bolton said.
He pointed to the extravagantly shaped plumage of Ms. van Herpen’s 2013-14 “Bird Dress,” in which all the feathers were made of silicon and laser-cut, but then applied by hand to the cotton base. “You expect it to be all machine, but it’s just the materials,” Mr. Bolton said. “Often 70 to 90 percent of Iris’s work is handmade.”
Catering to a culture in which people line up for the next iteration of the iPhone, museums are watching public response to these shows. “I found that even simply the addition of 10 percent of fashion in ‘Out of Hand’ brought in people to the museum who would not have come otherwise,” Mr. Labaco said. The exhibition had the highest attendance of any Museum of Arts and Design show in the last four years.
At the High, choosing to make its fashion debut with Ms. van Herpen, a lesser-known designer, rather than a big name like Gaultier or Saint Laurent, was a risk, Ms. Schleuning said, but one that is yielding large numbers — more than 100,000 visitors just in the first two months. “It’s spoken a lot to the younger audience,” she said, and to visitors who don’t always feel that museum exhibitions have “relevance to the lives they’re living.”
Ms. Finamore conceived of “#techstyle” with Boston’s technology professionals, mostly men, in mind. “I have consciously thought about how we get them in the door,” she said. Men have frequented the Metropolitan Museum’s hugely successful shows organized by the Costume Institute, including last year’s “China: Through the Looking Glass,” the museum’s best-attended fashion exhibition. It had more than 815,000 visitors, surpassing the blockbuster 2011 Alexander McQueen show, which drew 661,500 people.
“Fashion is a very democratic art form,” said Mr. Bolton, who thinks the theme of “Manus x Machina” is particularly relevant to today’s practices. “It attracts such a big audience because it’s immediately relatable.”
“When you go to the paintings galleries, often there’s a hushed reverence,” he added. “But then you go downstairs to the Costume Institute, and it’s like a raucous frat party. People aren’t afraid to voice an opinion about fashion.”