Leonardo da Vinci’s unrealized design for a sequin machine is an oddity in the history of innovations that make erstwhile luxuries more accessible.
Sequins are plastered on everything: flip flops, cotton T-shirts, canvas tote bags, sneakers—even Ugg boots. I became obsessed with sequined Uggs at the height of their popularity in 2011. I didn’t want to wear them, but I’d consider them from a distance. I’d stare at ads on subway platforms and admire the humorless earnestness of the high-low, pretty-ugly mashup. Did sequins camouflage the awkwardness of the Ugg boot or accentuate its simple shape? Did affixing reflective spangles to an otherwise schlumpy boot result in all-purpose, one-shoe-fits-all, budget-friendly footwear that you could wear to a black-tie event or to your local bodega?
Three years later, in 2014, I stood in front of Ambrogio Bevilacqua’s mixed-medium Madonna and Child (1495) at the Sforza Castle in Milan. Mary’s dress is made of hundreds of hand-stitched sequins, some of the oldest that exist in Europe. Much of the surface is woven from gold and silver threads, including Mary’s hair; only the figures’ skin is painted. Staring at the work, I imagined the painstaking process of making those tiny disks before the task had been automated. The ubiquity of sequins today as a campy add-on to just about anything makes it hard to believe that five hundred years ago they would have been made of gilded metal and featured on a delicate work representing Jesus and Mary.
The contrast between the artisanal techniques of the past and the mass production of today is the kind of distinction that provides fodder for “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” an exhibition opening this month at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. With over 120 pieces, the show looks back to the beginning of haute couture in the late nineteenth century, when it was a luxury alternative to clothes produced by sewing machines or in factories. As curator Andrew Bolton said at a press preview in February, haute couture depends on a binary opposition between the handmade and the mass-produced—and yet in reality the fashion industry frequently blurs those lines. “Proponents of the hand see it as symbolic of exclusivity, spontaneity, and individuality, while opponents see it as symbolic of elitism, the cult of personality, and the detrimental nostalgia for past craftsmanship,” Bolton said. “Likewise, the proponents of the machine see it as symbolic of progress, democracy, and mass production, while opponents see it as symbolic of inferiority, dehumanization, and one-dimensionality.” “Manus x Machina” presents hand and machine as partners rather than in opposition. While its focus is haute couture, the exhibition seems to offer a critical framework wherein something like glittering Uggs could be discussed alongside Bevilacqua’s sequin-encrusted Madonna and Child.
The automation of sequin production has occupied me since I stumbled upon Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing for a sequin-making machine on WikiMedia Commons in late 2012. While the sketch was annotated by Leonardo as “macchina punzonatrice,” Italian historian Carlo Pedretti, who wrote extensive notes about Leonardo’s drawings, translated it as a “puncher device for the production of sequins."1 Sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn, I stared at the late fifteenth-century sketch on my computer screen, dumbfounded. I tried interpreting the way the pulleys and ratchet wheels would have worked, where the metal would have been fed, and how you would have cranked the mechanism to punch out the round disks. But I also wondered: Why had celebrated genius Leonardo made a sketch for a device that would produce something as seemingly insignificant as the sequin? Did people wear sequins in the fifteenth century? Was the machine ever made?
Initial research seemed to indicate that Leonardo’s drawing had never been more than just a sketch. But I wanted to know more. My obsession with sequins turned into an obsession with Leonardo’s machine. If it had never been made, I wanted to make it, or a version of it. I would adapt his sketch into a sculpture to make sequins one by one, in contrast to how they’re churned out by the thousands per minute today. But I also knew I needed to learn about the sketch and the production of sequins. In 2014 I traveled to Milan, to meet with Leonardo scholars and fashion historians who I hoped would have answers to my questions.
My first stop was the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The seventeenth-century library houses the Codex Atlanticus, a bound set of drawings and writings that Leonardo produced from 1478 to 1519. It’s the largest compendium of its kind, comprising 1,119 pages in twelve volumes, with one hundred pages of writing and a total of 1,750 sketches and drawings devoted to engineering, hydraulics, optics, anatomy, architecture, geometry, and astronomy—including the sketch for the sequin-making machine.
When I met him, Biblioteca Ambrosiana curator and Leonardo scholar Pietro Marani wore white gloves as he and his assistants took down a show of Leonardo’s musical instrument drawings from the Codex in a book-filled, dimly lit gallery. I asked him if a machine had ever been built based on the sketch I was researching. “We have no way of knowing,” he said. Furthermore, he explained, it isn’t known if the concept for the design was Leonardo’s own. For centuries, it was assumed that Leonardo had independently arrived at all the ideas in the Codex Atlanticus, but it’s now understood that, while some of the things depicted in the drawings were his inventions, others were copies of or improvements upon what already existed. “Leonardo always invented or modified machines according to the economy or the needs at the time,” Marani said. “He wanted to automate, to reduce the work of man.”
Next, I went to Italy’s largest science and technology museum, the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, which houses around sixteen thousand historical objects in a former monastery. In the 1950s, many of Leonardo’s sketches had been translated into models—a hydraulic saw, a spinning machine, a bridge—and the matter-of-fact results were now on view at the museum. There, curator Claudio Giorgione explained that Leonardo’s status had been built up to mythic proportions over centuries. As a result, experts converting the sketches to models had been “too enthusiastic” in their attribution of every design to Leonardo.
My research and conversations with several experts in Milan produced no evidence that Leonardo’s sequin machine was ever realized, and there’s probably no way of knowing for certain whether he came up with the idea on his own or duplicated or improved upon someone else’s concept. But I’m sure that Leonardo had sequins on his mind, and the experts I spoke to were confident that he sketched the machine while on retainer for the wealthy Sforza family.
The House of Sforza ruled the duchy of Milan in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Duke Ludovico Sforza hired Leonardo in 1482. Leonardo’s job was to design solutions to technical problems in order to make his patrons’ lives easier or more pleasant, whether these innovations pertained to fashion or more practical concerns. Members of the Sforza family often wore sequins; historian Timothy McCall cites poetic descriptions of their sartorial choices: “According to Francesco Filelfo, [the duke] was a star emitting ‘shimmering luster’ who ‘shines brilliantly.’ . . . The ‘flashing and sparkling’ fifteen-year-old Galeazzo Maria Sforza thus seemed to be ‘shining more than the morning stars’ when he moved, according to an anonymous poet."2 You can even see Francesco Sforza, Ludovico’s father, wearing sequins in a fifteenth-century portrait. The brilliance of shiny ornaments was associated with fifteenth-century Italian ideals of nobility and the belief in light as a manifestation of the Divine. That’s why it’s likely that the Sforza family commissioned Leonardo’s sketch: sequins were a favored form of bling at the time because they were a symbol of power.
The Sforza court in the late fifteenth century was rather like the runways of Milan Fashion Week today—it was where the trends of northern Italy emerged before being adopted by wider swaths of the population. And if Prada, Armani, and Bottega Veneta spawn countless bootlegs now, such counterfeiting occurred in the Renaissance, too, posing an annoying problem for the elite. For example, sequins (known in Italy as magete, sometimes zecchini, and very occasionally bysantini) were made by well-respected artisans specializing in ars magietarum, or “the art of sequins.”3 They were supposed to be either gilded or made of silver, but counterfeiters made them from cheaper materials. A 1482 petition issued by the Milanese Goldsmiths Guild denounced craftsmen who harmed the city’s reputation by producing sequins from copper and brass.4 Makers of fraudulent sequins could be punished—a precursor to arrests and confiscations on New York’s Canal Street for peddling Gucci handbag knockoffs. The petition’s hand-wringing also indicates the high demand for sequins at the time. But even strict legislation couldn’t stop the counterfeiters. In fact, recently analyzed sequins from that period were found to be made of copper.5
Many artisans also experimented with cheaper versions of precious stones made from tinted glass, crystals, foils, mirrors, and paste. An entire industry expanded around it. “In Milan, ‘the art of making counterfeit gems’ (l’arte da fare geme contrafacte, according to one quattrocento document) had been practiced since the fourteenth century and received ducal protection and regulation in 1488,” McCall reports.6 Perhaps while he was waiting for the sequin machine to be realized, Leonardo dabbled too. As McCall notes, “he was particularly interested in ingredients that would augment luster and sheen” to create shiny artificial pearls.7
The technical innovation, experimentation, and automation we associate with Leonardo can induce knockoffs by making erstwhile luxuries easier to produce. Had Leonardo’s concept become a functioning machine, it would have become exponentially easier for aristocrats in the Sforza court to wear sequins, for better or worse. And eventually, as with everything, they would have been adapted for and worn by many others as well.
Andrea Bilics, who founded Italy’s oldest sequin factory in 1946, has witnessed firsthand the technological evolution that has made sequins more accessible. I visited his facility on the outskirts of Milan on a warm day in June 2014, shortly after I’d gone to the library and museum for my research on Leonardo. In the factory’s attic, Bilics showed me the hulking hand-cranked machines that were used in the early days to punch sequins, a task which involved quite a bit of manual labor. He then walked me through a room that was thumping with the repetitive sound of the industrial hole-punchers that make sequins today. Those machines, he told me through a translator, can pump out thousands per minute in long strips or as individual disks in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Even though his company produces sequins in mass quantities, they are still purchased by high-end designers like Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs.
Werner Sombart was a German economist who focused on shifts in consumer culture, especially in regard to fashion. In 1902, he wrote:
It is the clerk’s greatest pride to wear the same shirts as the wealthy bon vivant, the greatest pride of the servant girl to don the same jacket as her mistress, of the butcher’s lady to own the same lush lingerie as the privy councillor’s wife . . . a trait that seems to be as old as social differentiation itself, a yearning that has never been so splendidly satisfied as in our age, an age in which technology no longer imposes any restrictions on contrefaçon, in which there is no longer so sumptuous a fabric nor so intricate a style that they cannot be imitated in pinchbeck straight away at a tenth of the original price.8
Whether it was Leonardo’s machine or Bilics’s upgrades that made sequin production easier, these examples illustrate how the democratization of fashion is inextricably linked to mechanization. The history of the sequin exemplifies this trajectory. Thousands of years before the Renaissance, gold sequinlike disks, or coins, were sewn on King Tut’s burial garment to ensure he’d be financially secure in the afterlife. Even though sequined garments were worn during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the King Tut discovery in the 1920s popularized them in the flapper era. Sequins were made of metal at that time, but technological innovation took off in the 1930s, when electroplated gelatin yielded a lighter version. The only problem was that they’d melt if they got wet or warm. Herbert Lieberman, owner of Algy Trimmings Co., then one of the largest sequin producers in the United States, worked with Eastman Kodak to develop acetate sequins, which reflect light beautifully but are breakable. In 1952, the DuPont company invented Mylar and Lieberman adopted it: Mylar could surround colored plastic sequins and protect them in the washing machine. Eventually, acetate was abandoned for the more durable and cost-effective, but less sparkly, option that is still in use, vinyl plastic.9 With each innovation in production, the shiny disk became less of a prized possession and more of a commonplace thing—a shift in cultural currency.
Today, fashion writer Emilia Petrarca has observed, it’s satisfying to see how sequins can toggle between mass-produced ubiquity at Old Navy and the exclusivity of runway looks by designers like Marni, Prada, and Sonia Rykiel,10 thus disrupting any attempt at categorization. As Bolton, curator of “Manus x Machina,” said at the press preview, haute couture and ready-to-wear are increasingly embracing each other’s practices and techniques. He cited a Chanel autumn/winter 2014–15 wedding dress as a perfect encapsulation of the intersection between hand and machine. The design of its train was sketched by hand, then altered with software to make it look pixelated. The dress is made from scuba knit—a fully synthetic material—that was painted by hand, studded with rhinestones using a machine, and then embroidered by hand with pearls and gemstones. Over the 450 hours of work that went into producing the garment, hand and machine worked in tandem. Karl Lagerfeld, Bolton said, described the result as “haute couture without the couture.”
The industrial reproduction of clothing created confusion about how to parse the distinctions between high and low fashion. The collision of these worlds dissolved more rigid tropes, making it harder to tell the difference between a chintzy, inexpensive prom dress from the mall and a one-of-a-kind couture gown. We’re rightly outraged when Forever 21 exploits small independent designers by stealing their work. We grimace when it knocks off a high-end design.11 But what about when the script is flipped and Hedi Slimane trolls Forever 21 and offers up a $3,490 Saint Laurent Paris dress that’s almost identical to one already on the floor of Forever 21 for under $50?12
Depending on who you talk to, the industry is either adapting or imploding. “Democratization [of fashion] signified a lessening of the marks of social distance, a muting of the aristocratic principle of conspicuous consumption, along with the new criteria of slenderness, youth, sex appeal, convenience, and discretion,” writes historian Gilles Lipovetsky. He goes on to say that over the last one hundred years fashion has not eliminated signs of social status, but diminished their importance by prioritizing personality.13 Fashion is no longer about high and low, authentic or fake, but about being distinctive and alluring.
Frequently, clothing is made in unsustainable, environmentally harmful and gluttonous ways. Usually it can be traced back to the automation we’ve embraced—so we should always be aware of what and how we consume. That said, greater access to all kinds of clothing is liberating. As Lipovetsky notes, when you can’t tell what’s “real” or “authentic” and what’s “fake” or a “copy,” those categories lose their power to maintain their restrictive boundries. When I walk down the street in New York, I see established hierarchies falling apart. What does it matter if your sequins are gilded copper or real silver or your mink coat is authentic or a knockoff if you like how you look? Take, for example, the clothing designer Dapper Dan and his iconic 1980s allover print Louis Vuitton and MCM outfits. Worn by music celebrities like Bobby Brown, Salt-N-Pepa, and Eric B. & Rakim, these customized pieces weren’t made by Louis Vuitton or MCM. Rather, they were inspired by the status symbols created by those designers, adapted for another audience, made to order, and eventually confiscated by order of now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for copyright issues.14 Among Dapper Dan’s avid followers, his clothes wound up with more influential social currency and street cred than the status symbols that originally influenced him. Plus, his allover prints came full circle to influence those designers’ collections today. We default to thinking there’s “real” and “not real,” but there’s also a different kind of real. Dapper Dan made clothes that were derived from recognizable luxury brands. He created a new real, and with that he brought forth a fresh form of legitimacy.
From where I stand, those derivatives aren’t inferior or static—they contribute equally to the conversation. And that conversation is about self-expression. It’s about non-gender-specific shape-shifting, about mixed-up invention and reinvention. It’s about not differentiating between basic and fancy. It’s about being made well and sustainably by a reliable source. It’s about amusing wearers and their friends. It’s about high mimicking low and low mimicking high in a state of cannibalism and anarchy. Like it or not, that’s where we are in 2016.
As I work toward realizing Leonardo’s design for a sequin-making machine in my own way, I’ve come to hold a mythologized view of this Renaissance man. I want to believe that, even in the fifteenth century, he would have surmised the automation instigated through his sequin-making machine would bring forth a radical shift in cultural currency. I’d also like to believe that Leonardo would respect today’s stylish bricoleur who, like him, is filled with the urge to experiment, play, and cross boundaries. With the shiny disks I churn out from my yet-unrealized, Leonardo-inspired sculpture, I’ll create my own knockoff version of sequin-covered Ugg boots and wear them proudly. I think he’d be into it.
“Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 5–Aug. 14.