Thursday, June 12, 2014

Charles James: Beyond Fashion (Exhibition)

Background image: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Cecil Beaton/Vogue/Conde Naste Archives. Copyright Conde Naste.
Anyone headed to New York City this summer, the Charles James exhibition currently hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through August 10) is a must-see. The Anglo-American designer is considered the greatest US-based haute couturier of all times and the work on display is, in a word....extraordinary.
Nancy James in Charles James Swan Gown, 1955
Nancy James in Charles James "Swan" Gown, 1955
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's
Born in Great Britan, Charles James was first a milliner, opening a shop at the age of 19 in Chicago in 1926. Things did not work out there, so he packed up and moved to New York, opening another hat shop in Queens. Though he did spend time in Paris, the couturier was largely self taught. He is best known for transforming fashion through the innovative cut of his sculpted ball gowns and the interchangeable nature of his garments, a novelty of his day. It is said that James' work inspired Christian Dior in the creation of those famous "New Look" dresses.
Charles James with Model, 1948
Charles James with Model, 1948
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast
The inaugural exhibition of the museum's newly renovated Costume Institute examines the career of the legendary couturier in two of its locations: the first floor special exhibitions gallery and the Anna Wintour Costume Center located on the ground floor. Charles James's design process, specifically his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today, is the principal focus of this show. Some sixty-five signature designs produced by James over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978 bear witness to an extraordinary talent, both aesthetically and technically.
Austine Hearst in Charles James Clover Leaf Gown, ca. 1953
Austine Hearst in Charles James "Four Leaf Clover" Gown, ca. 1953
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photographer Unknown, © Bettmann/CORBIS
At first glance the visitor is nearly overwhelmed by the resplendent glamour and impressive architecture of James's ball gowns. Within a dramatically lit, stark environment, stand James' most significant gowns including the "Clover Leaf," "Butterfly," "Tree," and "Swan" all dating from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Analytical animations, text, x-rays, and vintage images tell the story of each gown's intricate construction and history.
"Butterfly" Ball Gown, ca. 1955
"Butterfly" Ball Gown, ca. 1955
Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Fund, 2013 (2013.591)
The Anna Wintour Costume Center's Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James's craft. A pathway winds around a cruciform platform where the evolution and metamorphosis of James's day and evening wear are explored in four categories: Spirals & Wraps, Drapes & Folds, Platonic Form, and Anatomical Cut.
Ball Gown, 1949–50
Ball Gown, 1949–50
Red silk velvet, red silk satin, white cotton organdy
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954 (2009.300.2786)
Video animations focused on the most representative examples of his work are displayed on monitors, and live-feed cameras detailing the backs of garments, all of which are projected on the walls. The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery highlights James's life and work via drawings, pattern pieces, dress forms, jewelry maquettes, scrapbooks, and accessories.

Photos and video courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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