Charles James: Beyond Fashion…

Clover Leaf Dress
Clover Leaf Dress

Yesterday I knew very little about the iconic designer, Charles James. Today, I am enlightened.

I strolled the 2 miles to the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 82nd Street and 5th Avenue and delighted in the extraordinary exhibit that is showcased.

The Charles James retrospective is presented in two special exhibition galleries on the Museum’s first floor and The Costume Institute’s Center on the ground floor in the newly opened, Anna Wintour Costume Center, donated by the NY Giants co-owners, Lizzy and Jonathan Tisch.

beige gown

The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute examines the career of legendary twentieth-century Anglo-American couturier, Charles James (1906-1978).

ewd gown
Tree Gown

It explores 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.

The retrospective features approximately sixty-five of the most notable designs James produced over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978.

Charles James With Model
Charles James With Model

The first-floor special exhibition galleries spotlight and analyze the resplendent glamour and breathtaking architecture of James’ ball gowns.

On view are fifteen dramatically lit, iconic James gowns including the “Clover Leaf,” “Butterfly,” “Tree”and “Swan” from the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Swan Gown Cocktail Dress/Ball Gown
Swan Gown Cocktail Dress/Ball Gown

Analytical animations, text, x-rays, and vintage images tell the story of each gowns intricate construction and history.

green gown

The Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James’ craft. A pathway winds around a 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.

Video animations focused on the most representative examples of his approach are shown on monitors, and live-feed cameras detailing the backs of garments are projected on the walls.

Charles multi

The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery displays information from James’s life and work, including drawings, pattern pieces, dress forms, jewelry maquettes, scrapbooks and accessories.

He started his career in New York, opening a hat shop in Murray Hill. He was quite a social butterfly and famed photographer, Cecil Beaton, was his best friend.

ball gown
Four-Leaf Clover Gown

James treated fashion as artistry and each dress was made like a piece of sculpture. Unfortunately, while he was a creative genius, James famously fell short on the business end of things. He ultimately fell into $197,000 worth of debt and had his showroom seized by the IRS.

Butterfly Ball Gown 1955
Butterfly Ball Gown 1955, weighed 18 pounds

It is 36 years since Charles James death, but 2014 is shaping up to be quite a year for him.

The designer, chosen by American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to be the first on exhibition at the Met’s new costume centre (as well as the theme of the 2014 Met Gala) bearing her name (it was previously called the Costume Institute), is far from a household name, despite being widely regarded in fashion circles as “America’s first courturier”.

Michelle Obama, Anna Wintour  Photo:Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Michelle Obama, Anna Wintour Photo:Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Harvey Weinstein hopes to change all that. Weinstein has confirmed rumours that he has “agreed to license, with an option to buy, luxury fashion brand Charles James from the iconic designer’s estate”.

The film producer and co-founder of Miramax Films released a statement saying: “Charles James was one of the most incredible couturiers in the history of fashion and this label deserves to be a household name in the same ranks as Chanel, Dior and Oscar de la Renta. There isn’t a single designer in high fashion who wouldn’t name him as a major influence. We are beyond thrilled to be spearheading the revival of this brand and bringing it back to the world’s finest retailers.”

Petal Gown
Petal Gown

Christian Dior called him ‘the greatest talent of his generation’ and Balenciaga considered James the only one in the world who raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art.

At the height of his career, James designed sumptuous, sculptural, otherworldly gowns for the glamorous likes of Austine Hearst (wife of William Randolph Hearst Jr., and one of his most devoted patrons), Babe Paley, Marlene Dietrich, Millicent Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee…women who could have had any dress by any designer, but were willing to wait months, even years, for a dress made by James.

opera coat
Swan Down Puffer Jacket

James is credited with inventing the strapless style, the wrap dress, the use of a zipper on a formal, the swan down puffer jacket, the sports bra and the opera coat.

A revival of the brand under Weinstein’s ownership will be guided by Georgina Chapman, the co-founder of the high-end womenswear label Marchesa, who married Weinstein in 2007. She will become the creative consultant for Charles James. It has not been confirmed who will design for the brand.

The Charles James exhibit is a must from a fashion and technology prospective. Other than the Alexander McQueen retrospective, this is the most compelling fashion exhibit I have ever seen…put it on your bucket list…it is Beyond Fashion and Beyond fabulous.

lots of charles james

Charles James: Beyond Fashion May 8th-August 10th, 2014 Met Museum 82nd and 5th Avenue New York City. It has been noted the Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibition will travel. Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

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