Charles James (1906 -1978), thought by some – including himself – as America’s first couturier, was a difficult man to work with. His idiosyncratic worth ethic, typified by a bad case of perfectionism and insisting on doing everything himself, clearly payed off. The Metropolitan Museum’s ode to the designer with Charles James: Beyond Fashion is proof. With two rooms dedicated to the show, visitors have the honour of being in the presence of some of the most breathtaking and innovative clothing designs known to fashion.
Upon entering the special exhibitions gallery on the first floor of the museum, James enthusiasts are treated at first by a collection of six muslin mock-ups laying out the groundwork for the rest of the exhibit. The mock ups in this case act as a sort of skeleton giving a visual example of the process involved in creating a Charles James piece.
On the first floor at the special exhibitions gallery - Source
Immediately following these “drafts”, visitors are welcomed into a dark room where fifteen of James’ most extraordinary gowns are on display. Like statues on elevated pedestals, visitors have the ability to walk around the dresses and experience it from every angle.
The Four-Leaf-Clover dress in the special exhibitions gallery - Source
For the tech-inclined, each dress is accompanied by a screen presentation highlighting the construction of each dress layer by layer. The history of each piece is explored by the materials used, construction and where he drew his inspiration. For example, a dress with a tailored waist from the 1900′s is shown whereby little by little each change to the style of dress made by the James is shown either with the drop of the waist or a different method of draping. Resulting in the displayed gown. Like any piece of fine art, it’s natural to feel the pull from a particular piece; it speaks to you. This writer’s favourite piece was the Butterfly Dress, whose resemblance to that which it is named cannot go unnoticed. This silk dress, a gift to the museum from Mrs. John de Menil, was constructed in 1955 and is an absolute masterpiece. As a sleeveless gown, the silhouette is statuesque until James adds the voluptuous aubergine, lavender, and oyster white tulle bustle – measuring 25 yards of tulle and weighing in at an 18lb dress. Oh, the things we do for fashion.
In the Anna Wintour Costume Center on the ground floor of the Met - Source
At the Anna Wintour Costume Center – requiring a trip back through the Met lobby, through Egyptian relics and down a couple flights of stairs – a display of pieces by Charles James lies behind a glass barrier reminiscent of walking into a high fashion zoo where lions are replaced by cocoon coats, and monkeys by wool dresses. Although this exhibition lacks the high technology of the aforementioned much information is given to each piece, organized in categories: Spirals & Wraps; Drapes & Folds; Platonic Form; and Anatomical Cut.This part of the exhibition also features a small room, the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, with scrapbooks, notes, sketches and other memorabilia of James’ allowing for a more personal connection with the exalted designer.
Charles James memorabilia in the Iris Barrel Apfel gallery - Source
His difficulties aside, Charles James exceeded what is meant by a “brilliant designer”. To say that he changed the landscape of fashion design is a severe understatement; he aggressively paved the way. James spearheaded the 1950′s and 1960′s New Look where designs were characterized by extravagant volume and unique tailoring.
Through this exhibition we can see the influence of James on other elite designers like Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Alexander McQueen to name only a few. Charles James: Beyond Fashion lives up to its title as the exhibit leaves visitors feeling like they understand a little bit more about the designer and more, what it means to see things differently and having the passion and confidence to take risks.
The Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibition is currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in one of the special exhibition galleries on the first floor and the new Anna Wintour Costume Center on the ground floor, from May 8, 2014 to August 10th, 2014.
Cecil Beaton in my favourite dress of the show: the Butterfly Gown - Source
For more information on the exhibit, visit metmuseum.org
Words by Robyn Yager
Images via Robyn Yager and sources noted