New York, NY — On May 8th, 2014, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opened the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion to launch its newly renovated exhibition space, now known as the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Presented in the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery within the Costume Center and also in special first-floor galleries, the exhibition truly embraces those who appreciate fashion, like many young students who aspire to become designers themselves. The galleries offer not only a place to view Charles James’s designs, but also tools to introduce viewers to the scientific, engineering, and mathematical processes behind his garments.
Harold Koda, curator in charge of the James exhibition, describes the designer as “a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching. He dreamt that his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students.”
Now, James’s dream has been turned into an extraordinary exhibition that will indeed deliver lessons and insights for students of fashion, architecture, and engineering, as well as those simply curious to know what it takes to make incredibly beautiful clothes like James’s. The exhibition presents about sixty-five garments including muslins, ball gowns, cocktail dresses, and coats. As viewers traverse the galleries, they absorb James’s sensibility through quotes from the designer mounted on the plexiglass and mirrored walls.
“We who have been ahead in STYLE have usually been also ahead in our thinking.” – Charles James
As Koda noted, “He [James] was fascinated by the play of the anatomy as it existed in everyday.” James used Georgia O’Keeffe’s floral paintings as a muse to help him explore the sensuality of the human body through fashion.
James’s concept while creating was to present the human body in discrete yet highly erotic and elegant ways through the use of asymmetry, seams, and draping. He intentionally crafted clothing that displayed women’s shapes. “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had,” said James.
In one of the first-floor galleries, high-tech animations and x-rays reveal the elaborate assembly of James’s ball gowns and his unique methods of constructing clothing. These tools, along with a platform box showcasing six muslin mock-ups and an eclectic collection of patterns, swatches, and sketches, enable students and others to study James’s clothing, starting from the heart of his exquisite designs. Here, James’s pieces are divided into four sections according to the techniques he used to construct them: Tucks and Wraps, Drapes and Pulls, Platonic Form, and Anatomical Cut. This gallery showcases mainly coats and cocktail dresses by using computer screens to present diagrams showing how James constructed the garments.
Also in this gallery is the uniquely styled wrap-dress called the Taxi Dress (1932). Named for how practical and easy it was to put on in a taxi cab—and predating Diane von Furstenberg’s better-known version by 42 years—the Taxi is made with black wool ribbed knit.
Alongside the casual Taxi Dress, an opulent collection of cocktail dresses radiates with rich tones of chocolate, copper, navy blue, and olive green. Black silk satin and black silk velvet refine the Evening Dress (1948), with its criss-crossed back and balloon bustle.
The La Sirene Evening Dress (1951–52) stands out among long silk and velvet black dresses with its flawless draping in ivory silk crepe fabric. An artistic sculpture of material, La Sirene is an example of how well James manipulated fabric. “James,” Koda says, “is considered an architect in cloth.”
James’s architectural skills carried over into a section of wool coats and jackets. The bright red Bluebell Coat (1954), the Gothic Coat (1954) in pink cashmere, and the Great Coat (1961) in red-and-black plaid brought versatility to a predominately evening wear collection. The cozy coats embody James’s brilliant structural design aesthetic with meticulous simplicity; perfectly tailored, but with such little detail.
In the first-floor special exhibition galleries, as Koda notes, “you’re confronted by a constellation of beautiful ball gowns floating in the dark.”
Influenced by Victorian-era bustle dresses, James created gowns in exquisite shapes, colors, and fabrics. Using simply brown silk chiffon/satin and cream silk satin for the body of the Butterfly Ball Gown (1955) and brown and purple nylon tulle for the dramatic bustle, James managed to evoke the sense of a beautiful creature emerging from a chrysalis.
The Four Clover Leaf Gown (1953), once worn by the late newspaper reporter Austine Hearst, is elegantly color blocked with white silk satin, white silk faille, and black silk-rayon velvet. In the Hipster Gown, ingeniously cut and constructed black silk-rayon, red silk satin, brown silk faille, and black silk crepe create a silhouette that somehow slenderizes despite the protruding fabric at the hips for which the gown was named.
Charles James: The First and the Best
Given that many in the fashion world consider Charles James to be the first and possibly the best twentieth-century couturier, it is amazing that he had no formal training. James is recognized not only as a designer, but also as a tailor, an artist, and a sculptor. His construction of fabrics presents creations of artistic brilliance that have inspired several generations of designers and will no doubt continue to inspire all those who follow.
“Fashion after all, is magic and miracle … intended to bestow proportion and beauty where both have been lost or foundered with the years.”—Charles James
High Praise for Wintour, Costume Institute
Before Charles James: Beyond Fashion opened to the public, a room full of press, actors such as Sarah Jessica Parker, and designers such as Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs joined First Lady Michelle Obama in opening the new Costume Institute following its two-year, $40 million renovation.
The First Lady, wearing a knee-length Naeem Khan dress embroidered with stylized green flowers on an ivory ground and neutral , was there to cut the ribbon and to speak a few words about Anna Wintour (Editor–in-Chief of Vogue Magazine), the Costume Institute, and the Met. “I’m here because I have such respect and admiration for this woman [Anna],” said Mrs. Obama. “The Met will be opening up the world of fashion like never before and that’s the mission of this new space; to show that fashion isn’t an exclusive club.”
“This center is for anyone who is curious about fashion and how it impacts our culture and our history.” —United States First Lady Michelle Obama
Article Editor: Elizabeth Nash
Fashion Writer: Michelle O. Dente