Not since Goldfinger dumped the gilt corpse of his double-crossing gal pal in James Bond’s bed has the metalicized body had such a cultural moment. The intergalactic sheen of the inorganic seems omnipresent, tinging everything from eyes, lips and nails to gilded temporary tattoos, cutaneous body adornments, to even the most ubiquitous hand-held device, the rose gold iPhone 6. Metal-mania may have reached a saturation point at the recent gala celebrating the opening of the Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute where glittering guests were greeted by a phalanx of chrome helmeted, silver-skinned cyber-models. Not to be outdone, many of the partiers — resplendent in spangled Balmain space suits, shiny ear cuffs, and chromed accoutrements — seemed on the verge of some metallurgic transmogrification themselves.
If the Met Gala was its apotheosis, the origin point of the precious metal movement occurred backstage in Milan last fall. Fresh from the unveiling of her 24-karat gold “haunted house” at the new Fondazione Prada, Miuccia Prada exhorted the make-up artist Pat McGrath to plate her models’ lips in an eerie yellow gold powder that went on to become the look of the season — a surreal intersection of Klimt and Kubrick. Moving on to Paris, McGrath amped up the effect with silvered eyes at Maison Martin Margela. After several seasons where make-up on the runway evoked some idealized image of dewy naturalism, the metallic appliqué exuded a molten heft that was unabashedly sci-fi. The result was uncanny and alien: part Barbarella, part Blade Runner, part Ziggy Stardust. With so much attention focused on our virtual selves — the us of emails, texts, posts, and SnapChats — this emergence of the metalicized body seems to reassert the physical in the face of digital dissolution. Metal may be inherently inhuman, the uneffaced mark of industrialization, but at least its tangible.
Simultaneously, all this skin plating triggers our conflicted relationship with machines. And technology. And femininity. And sex. And power. And the future. The comingling of flesh and metal agitates an underlying contemporary neurosis: Where does the body stop and the machine take over? “Fetishism…” the German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin famously observed, “succumbs to the sex appeal of the inorganic.” We want what we’re not. And for millennia, the cold, hard, impenetrability of metal has served as the counterpoint of supple flesh. Metals may be our most ancient obsession — they name our prehistories after all — but this moment of techno-fetishism looks decidedly forward. The metallic is still our most explicit expression of the futuristic: steel nails evoke cybernetic componentry, chromed lips a space-age prophylactic.
The organic/inorganic dialectic of the dystopian future has motivated countless paranoiac cyber-fantasies. Consider Maria, the fetching maschinenmensch (man-machine) from Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis, reputed to be the first fembot — though that term didn’t appear until Lindsey Wagner’s Bionic Woman started kicking serious ass in the second-wave Seventies. (The somewhat more clinical term, gynoid, was coined by Gwyneth Jones to describe the alluring Chinese robot slave in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance.) Those gleaming heroines are but few in a century-long line of sexy robotrix spanning countless Japanese animés, as well as Playboy Playmate Dorothy Strattan’s Glaxina, the suburbandroid Stepford Wives, T-X (aka the Terminatrix), Hajime Sorayama’s chromed pin-ups, the campy artillery-breasted fembot army of Austin Powers, Ex Machina’s ethereal Ava, and the glamorous claw-armed Imperitor Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.
The gynoid neatly conflates erotic desire and fear — Pris, the “basic pleasure model” replicant in Blade Runner attempts to strangle her would-be captor between her thighs — the terror of the sex toy run amok. Running amok is, of course, what robots do. In terms of moral repercussion, the unintended actions of the robot are the inevitable consequence of designer hubris. What can you expect when you challenge God? Yet despite all the cautionary tales, it remains that there is no greater prize than our own mechanical duplication. Project that trope onto the world of style and its only a minor conceptual leap from designing the look to designing the woman. Why stop at the dress? The cyborg is fashion’s gesamtkunstwerk.
A top of the line cyborg, however, is still technically out of reach for even the most ambitious futurist, so the computer-generated version is the next best thing. Last fall Maison Louis Vuitton announced that Lighting, the 100% pixel-based heroine from the Final Fantasy video games, would be their new brand ambassador. According to the creative director Nicolas Ghesquière, his digital muse is “the perfect avatar for a global, heroic woman and for a world where social networks and communications are now seamlessly woven into our life.” (Not to mention the perfect avatar for a global brand, one that can be leveraged infinitely without all the pesky inconveniences of flesh and blood.)
If keeping up with the unrealizable expectations of the fashion system weren’t already challenging enough, the indefatigable Pris, or the effortlessly breathtaking Lighting “chosen to be a savior by the god Bhunivelze, and tasked to save the souls of the people before the end of the world,” seriously up the ante. (Do you know how hard it is to save souls and still look fresh?) Though you may never be charged with global salvation, at least now you can look like you could be. A little silver on the lip, gold on the eyelid, or chrome on the nail and you’re ready to take on the world(s).
All this gilding suggests an emerging form, wavering on the edge between ancient alchemy and ultra-technology, the fetishistic and futuristic. Under the lights of the runway, the glinting metallic glaze deconstructs the female face, disassembling it into an intricate, shimmering machine of highly polished components. Perhaps at issue is simply reflection: the light — and the gaze — bounce off the body. There is no there there, just a reflection of the surrounding world. I, fembot, am you. But that reflectivity also suggests a different kind of plating; metal as the quintessential protective skin. The robot recalls, first and foremost, a reanimated suit of armor sans body. Contemporary body armor is mostly invisible, embedded in the mesh of a garment or even a kind of super fabric in itself. But the metalicized woman defiantly wears her armor on the outside. In today’s world, the message is as blunt as lead: I’m impervious.
A version of this article was published in The New York Times.
© Michael Rock