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Costume Institute re-opens for Charles James: Beyond Fashion

Charles James: Beyond Fashion


On Monday, May 5, the revamped Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally opened its doors with its inaugural exhibition, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.”

Charles James, 1952
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo by Michael A. Vaccaro/LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
Ball Gown on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" exhibition
Jennifer Eberhart

The Costume Institute re-opened as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, with a ribbon-cutting by none other than the First Lady, Michelle Obama. That night, celebrities of fashion, movie, and music fame crowded the newly-christened galleries for the annual Costume Institute Gala. “Beyond Fashion” officially opened to the public on May 8.

So you know about Christian Dior, Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta, Prada, and Givenchy. But have you ever heard of Charles James? Have you seen his creations? Could you pick out a James dress in a crowd? Well the Met’s new exhibition will make sure you can.

Charles James began his career in the early 20th-century as a milliner and quickly stepped up through the ranks of the fashion industry to become one of the most sought-after couturiers of his day. A self-taught designer, James combined his love and knowledge of architecture, engineering, and sculpture in every gown he made. His creations were form-fitting, original, seductive, and tasteful.

James lived and worked in many of the fashion capitals of the world, from London to Paris to New York. He gained inspiration from – and equally inspired – designers and artists alike, including Christian Dior, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton, and Salvador Dali. James’s creations are titled mainly for their design shape, including “Clover Leaf Evening Dress,” “Butterfly Ball Gown,” “Swan Gown,” “Trapeze Coat,” and “Ribbon Dressing Gown.”

James’s pieces are complex and artistic, but the Met breaks it down for us. In the lower level Costume Center galleries, video cameras project random close-up images of the dresses, suits, and coats onto large panels on the walls. Computer screens are placed throughout the space to highlight the make-up of most of the pieces. In the first floor special exhibition galleries (which displays the real jewels of the collection), each unique ball gown is connected to a computer screen and a high-tech video camera that swoops around from front to back of its respective dress, highlighting what’s underneath as well as the visible aspects. If you ever wanted to know just how a flowing ball gown is created, this is the exhibition that you’ll want to visit.

A few pieces are immediately attention-worthy, including a number of Clover Leaf Ball Gowns, a rose-colored Tree Ball Gown, La Sirene Evening Dress, and the Ribbon Dressing Gown. A Clover Leaf gown on the top level, weighing ten pounds, is made of white silk satin and faille with a layer of black silk-rayon velvet undulating around the lower half of the dress. Journalist Austine Hearst (wife of William Randolph Hearst) looked stunning when she wore the gown in London at the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II. The Tree Ball Gown, once worn by burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee, is a luscious dark pink silk taffeta pleated creation with red, pink and white nylon tulle. On the lower level is the La Sirene Evening Dress made of ivory silk crepe, smooth on the sides and pleated from top to bottom at front and back, allowing curves in all the right places. And the Ribbon Dressing Gown crafted of complementary-colored peach, gold, yellow and ivory 6 ½ -inch-wide antique silk ribbons, is a tasteful and fun creation that twirls around the lower half of the body.

“Charles James: Beyond Fashion” is a well-designed show, sponsored by AERIN and Conde Nast, and curated by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder. Exhibition designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro have broken up the two floors into three zones: ball gowns, career highlights, and studio space.

The Costume Institute had been closed for six years – the new space underneath the Egyptian art galleries, which has been renamed the Anna Wintour Costume Center, is comprised of two galleries, the main exhibition space titled the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, and a smaller side space titled the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery.

These lower galleries are where the introduction to Charles James is made through his sketches, scrapbooks, dress forms, and dress examples noting the arc of his career. The first floor galleries (accessed from the Roman and Greek galleries) are where fifteen voluminous ball gowns are prominently displayed on their own platform. Quotes from and about James are printed on the walls, mirrors, and display windows.

While most of the galleries are not well-lit, the gowns themselves, at least on the upper level, are nicely displayed. The lower level is not expansive, and space is limited, which means traffic jams are imminent. Computer screens do not necessarily refer to the creation in its immediate vicinity so read closely. The lower level can also be confusing when looking at the video projections – if you peer between the dresses, you’ll notice cameras that are moving around seemingly haphazardly. Upper level computer screens tell the stories of the gowns, lasting for a few minutes each, so if you want to read and see the whole story you may also be waiting a while before others get out of the way.

Years in the making, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” is a great exhibit for both fashionistas and art-lovers alike. A full-color exhibition catalog also accompanies the show. Be sure to get to the museum early, especially if you’re visiting on a weekend, or you might face wait times. Let us know your favorite pieces by commenting below!

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