Charles James at the Met: An Exercise in Precision, Taste, and Sensuality

Charles James with Model (1948) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton/Vogue/Condé Nast Archive. Copyright Condé Nast 2014.

Charles James is considered the long-forgotten beacon of American couture, a hero to the affluent heiresses (think earlier Auntie Mame types) that characterized the century, though a niche population, at best. Although moody, perverted, and deeply narcissistic, James was a true genius and innovator, creating dresses that way preceded in style what are considered the ‘fresh’ fashions of today’s Roland Mouret and Narciso Rodriguez runway collections. His new Costume Institute exhibition, entitled Charles James: Beyond Fashion, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art gives James’ his deserved recognition and for us, a window into his world. 

The show begins on the first floor in a dimly lit and newly renovated gallery where a row of delicate bodices and inner workings of James’ gowns (mounted on mannequins) open up to reveal a room filled entirely with James’ most famed dresses, such as the Umbrella, the Lampshade, the Four-Leaf Clover, the Butterfly, etc. There are several cream incarnations of these prototypes, one in vibrant green satin, but the majority being in muted and muddy colors. Surrounding them sit customized computer screens (recent Institute purchases) that analyze every inch of James’ forms, taking them apart digitally to reveal their hidden structures. I tend to believe that technology often detracts from, rather than aids, the experience of examining art on one’s own, and that often this component becomes the focus of viewers, magnetizing them and thereby distracting people from studying the works themselves. So frequently do I personally trade real-life interactions for faceless ones without second thoughts; for me, at least, it’s an immediate, visceral reaction– I will make no overarching generalizations. And yet, at this exhibit, the employment of technology alongside James’ dresses feels oddly fitting, considering that so much of his pieces’ charm and finesse resides not in their superficial outcomes but in every meticulous step demanded for the construction of such dazzling products. I might venture to call it an enhancement, as the screens heighten the elegance of James’ achievements.

Etched on the gallery’s mirrored walls are sacred James quotes, full of wisdom regarding his designs and design process and brimming with quintessentially James humor, or so the curators tell us. In this vein, I cannot help but wonder what the couturier himself would say looking back upon this tribute to his opus, his life’s work, interpolated with modern-day mechanics, all bright and shiny, glittering in their quest to attract the eye, but somehow void of anything real and lasting. What happens when you step out from the dark into the light? Aside from having to readjust optically, I did not necessarily come away stirred by the profundity of Charles James’ creations. And I think I should have.

Anyway, next I headed to the second location of the show, beneath the Egyptian Wing of the museum. The glamour continued with more gowns, several dowdy hats, and various takes on suits that likely inspired Rei Kawakubo’s futon style coats for Comme de Garçons last year on display. There were even several golden-striped, knife-pleated skirts and dresses that evoke the recent Spring/Summer Proenza Schouler collection. Highlights included one of the first puffer jackets ever to be made, a little-known James invention; his coarse but beautiful preliminary sketches, used as models or outlines for future garments; and several artist books filled with clippings.

Leaving this last section, I noted how James seemed to have had an acute understanding of the female body, of each line, form, and shape, and because of this knowledge, he was able to have his dresses push, tighten, and reveal with perfection and grace. This epiphany of mine, however insignificant and obvious, ties in to something that pervades or serves as the foundation for all of James’ designs– his opinion that fashion is a vehicle of eroticism. A statement of his hangs above the entrance to one of the galleries: James remarks that blue jeans, which might be considered quotidian today but were very avant-garde in his time, are highly functional, and because of this are the embodiment or essence of sexual. This casual line actually says a lot about James as a couturier– more than just a maker of clothes, he propelled fashion forward as a prescient or prophetic promoter of the physical and the carnal.

For more on James, I suggest reading these reviews, one from the NY Times by Carol Vogel and another in the WSJ by Laura Jacobs. Videos about the show can be seen here.


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