Charles James Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

More often than not I’m disappointed by the exhibits at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Rather than being in-depth studies of a fashion designer, style, or theme they often end up being product placement for the sponsoring designer. However the current exhibit, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, is everything I want in a fashion exhibit.  While I’m not sure what the curators mean by “Beyond Fashion” – as if the sublime clothing in this exhibit needs to apologize for being “fashion” –  they presented it superbly.

When I go to a fashion exhibit I want to see gorgeous clothing, of course, but I also want to learn about how it fits into the history of fashion, about who it was designed for, and to learn something new.  This exhibit offers all that. The exhibit takes advantage of current technology by presenting video animations that deconstruct ball gowns into their pattern pieces and project video onto the gowns to show where these pieces are located.  In addition, many of the videos contain images of historic precedents that influenced James and show how he modernized earlier silhouettes.  Below are a series of screen shots of the animation of James’ famous Clover Leaf Gown that show how the pieces of fabric fit together on the gown, with the finished gown as the final photo:

The exhibit is extensive and is located in two galleries.  Beginning on the first floor is an array of spectacular ball gowns.  The entry features a tableau of stunning black and white gowns; only when I looked at them close up and read the captions did I realize that these were not finished gowns but rather muslins, the mock-ups used by James to fit the gowns to his clients and work out the design details.  They were so gorgeous that I would be happy to wear one to a ball, chalk marks, notes and all.

Charles James

A stunning pale pink gown from 1948, with a silhouette reminiscent of late 19th century bustle gowns, was featured in the first floor gallery.  What was most surprising was the photo of the dress in a Modess advertisement (seen on the right, below), shot by Cecil Beaton no less, surely the most elegant ad for feminine hygiene products ever created!

The exhibit continues in the basement in the dedicated Costume Institute exhibition galleries with more gowns plus day dresses, dinner dresses, coats, and dressing gowns.  Here are some views from the basement gallery (there were many others, but the low light levels and prohibited use of flash made photos of darker fabrics come out too dark to see well):

Charles James’ clients included the high society swans of the day:  Millicent Rogers, Dominique de Menil, Babe Paley and many others.  Some of the articles that accompanied the opening of the exhibit contained interviews with former clients and associates who indicated that James was quite a snob:  he wouldn’t take on a client who he considered dowdy.  What a shame since, in the hands of such an extraordinary designer, even the most dowdy woman would have been transformed into a swan.

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