This past week The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened its new Costume Institute named the Anna Wintour Costume Center with the inaugural exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion. The opening night gala has been met with mixed reviews as many in the fashion world questioned the erratic attire and lack of elegance that James was known for, however the exhibition, which examines the career of the legendary 20th-century Anglo-American couturier, is a fashion experience truly not to be missed.
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 arguably one of the greatest designers to have worked in the tradition of the haute couture in America. 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 “Clover Leaf,” “Butterfly,” “Tree,” “Swan,” and “Diamond”–will be showcased in the exhibition.
“Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching,” said Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute. “He dreamt that his lifetime of personal creative evolution and the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students. In our renovated galleries, we will fulfill his goal and illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math, and science.”
The retrospective, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, is 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 exhibition features approximately 75 of the most notable designs produced by James over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978.
The first-floor special exhibition galleries will spotlight the resplendent glamour and breathtaking architecture of James’s ball gowns from the 1940s through 1950s, worn by such renowned clients as Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil.
The new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will provide 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 will also be shown. Video animations in both exhibition locations will illustrate how he created anatomically considered dresses that sculpted and reconfigured the female form.
James was so keen to ensure his legacy by preserving the “corpus” of his work in one institution that he persuaded important clients to donate his designs to the Brooklyn Museum. The transfer of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection to the Metropolitan Museum in 2009 augmented the Met’s Charles James holdings, and with recent acquisitions of early designs and archives, the Museum now has the most definitive body of James’s work in the world, and the most comprehensive collection of a fashion designer’s work of any museum.
Charles James: Beyond Fashion is currently on view through August 10th 2014 www.metmuseum.org