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The fusion of art and fashion in the Charles James "Beyond Fashion" exhibition

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Charles James "Beyond Fashion"

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On May 8th, 2014 The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) opened a new fashion exhibition - Charles James: Beyond Fashion, which I’ve been wanting to see since the moment they announced the preparation for it last year.

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This inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute examines the career of the legendary twentieth-century Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906–1978). The exhibition explores James's design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today. Approximately sixty-five of James's most notable designs are presented in two locations—the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Center as well as special exhibition galleries on the Museum's first floor.

The first-floor special exhibition galleries spotlight the glamour and resplendent architecture of James's ball gowns from the 1940s through 1950s. The Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James's biography via archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his last studio in New York City's Chelsea Hotel. The evolution and metamorphosis by James of specific designs over decades are also shown. Video animations in both exhibition locations illustrate how he created anatomically considered dresses that sculpted and reconfigured the female form.

After designing in his native London, and then Paris, James arrived in New York City in 1940. Though he had no formal training, he is now regarded as one of the greatest designers in America to have worked in the tradition of the Haute Couture. His fascination with complex cut and seaming led to the creation of key design elements that he updated throughout his career: wrap-over trousers, figure-eight skirts, body-hugging sheaths, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, and poufs. These, along with his iconic ball gowns from the late 1940s and early 1950s—the "Four-Leaf Clover," "Butterfly," "Tree," "Swan," and "Diamond"—are showcased in the exhibition.

The First Lady Michelle Obama was in presence to open this exhibition. This is not the first fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back in the days, the notorious Diana Vreeland was a fierce force behind the launch of the ‘fashion’ exhibition at the museum, striving to present the works of the greatest fashion designers outside the traditional fashion outlets. Following the success of the early exhibitions that drew thousands of the Americans and tourists from around the world, the museum now presents at least one fashion exhibition a year. In the last few years, the visitors were able to see the works of some of the greatest designers from around the world, like Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” exhibition (2011) and “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” exhibition (2012) that explored the works of Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli and PUNK: Chaos to Couture (2013). Today, MET is collaborating with The Brooklyn Costume Institute, which has been recently renamed to Anna Wintour Costume Institute. For those who might not know who Mrs. Wintour is, she is the editor in chief of Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast, one of the most powerful women in the fashion business today.

The Charles James’ exhibition not only presents some of the notorious dresses and gowns worn by the high society socialites of New York City from the early 30s to the late 70s, but it gives the inside scoop of how these dresses have been made. Rotating X-rays, developed by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, allow the viewer to thoroughly examine the inner workings of many of James’ painstakingly created works. Original sketches and work-in-progress pieces of clothing and other materials and writings of the designer add further reference.

The exhibition shows that James was more than just a fashion designer, he was an artist with a vision, whose works have been studied by many of the today’s high profile designers, like Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs. One can see many of the designs of the modern day designers being influenced by the works of James. James was someone who engineered the hidden physics of a dress even though he is remembered for the loud surfaces of his designs. James is known for combining various fabrics and materials in making a dress and/or gown – from velvet and silk to hand-made embroidery.

For example his Incroyable Suit, designed by James in 1933, fuses the model of the jackets of the Incroyables of the French Directoire and the dandies of the English Regency. The collar, cut high as in the historical precedents, falls in soft folds and wrinkles like the neckerchief of a fop. James seamed together the “tails” of the coat to form a low back cowl drape. Of the style, James wrote: “The cutaway look was at this time [1933] not at all in the ‘market’…It simply looked well and gave the wearer a distinction.” See the video of it here.

Charles James is an artist whose mode of expression was fashion. As with every artist, James has an autograph – a distinctive pattern of details and signature flourishes that distinguishes his work. Whether for a day or evening, draped or tailored, a James design often shares an approach to, or characteristics of, his other creations. Essentially self-taught, he was someone for whom a compelling idea or innovation could be subject to a lifetime of revision and references. Even after the closing of his house, he continued to perfect designs from his earliest collections.

Among the hallmarks of his work are his architectural cut, see most clearly in his ball gowns. In this gallery, his spirals and wrapping of the body, his use of draping or folding to resolve the aesthetic disposition of excess material of a pattern pieces, and his insistence on transforming the conditions of the natural body into his platonic idea are addressed. His preference for the elimination of conventional darts and seams – or their clear predilection for asymmetry suggests his direct hands-on approach. Paul Poiret notes that because of his beginnings as a milliner, James, in addition to being a master at color, addressed fabric with an aggressive vigor that set him apart from his contemporaries. Certainly, Jamesian leitmotifs are evident at every stage of his development as a designer – from his hats in the 1920s to his dresses in the 1950s, which were featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. For James, the creative process was one of the constant evolution. See how James made his notorious Figure-Eight Dinner Dress here. Another dress worth mentioning is La Sirene Evening Dress, click here to see how it was made.

Charles James is most often remembered for the lavish glamour of the evening dresses he created during the late 1940s and early 1950s – a particularly fertile period for the designer. Credited by Christian Dior for inspiring his transformative 1947 “New Look” collection, James merged his prescient prewar silhouettes with the postwar mood for a return to romantic femininity and luxury. Within this narrow time frame, James’s idiosyncratic and sophisticated palette, audaciously sculptural manipulation of luxurious materials, and exceptional technical skill are in full, extravagant bloom. Well read, musical, and engaged by contemporary art movements, especially Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, James saw his creative output as equal to those of a painter, sculpture, or composer.

Later when he had a child with his wife Nancy Lee Gregory, who was twenty years younger than himself, he started to design clothing for children, like his famous cape coat he designed for his son Charles James Jr. in the early 60s.

By the ravishing beauty of a James work is only its surface. He believe that his singular innovations lay in the actual structure of his designs – in their architecture and engineering. James is, in fact, one of only a handful of twentieth-century couturiers whose pieces withstand deep analytical scrutiny. To dissect a James gown is to reveal more fully the complete originality and virtuosity of its maker.

And this is exactly what this exceptional exhibition offers.

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