Fashion

05.06.14

Charles James Brings Ball Gowns Back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Anna Wintour Costume Center is kicking things off with Charles James. You’d be forgiven for asking, ‘Who?” He’s one of America’s greatest couturiers—and he’s having a moment.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, and the exhibit that accompanies it, has become one of the most anticipated events of the year, seamlessly merging the worlds of fashion and art. In 2011, the retrospective celebrated the dark, poetic design value of the late Alexander McQueen, aptly named “Savage Beauty,” and its 660,000-plus visitors, became the eighth-most visited exhibition in the museum’s history. “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” followed the very difficult-to-fill shoes of the McQueen extravaganza, highlighting the similarities between Miuccia Prada and lesser-known Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli (whose surname many of the ball's attendees failed to pronounce correctly). Last year, the museum honored the inspiration of punk rock in clothing with “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” highlighting everything from Dame Vivienne Westwood’s “God Save the Queen” T-shirts to the infamous Versace safety pin dress. It was the epitome of cool, but the layout and design (like the Schiaparelli and Prada exhibit) were disappointing in comparison to McQueen.

In January, it was announced that the Met’s Costume Institute (which hosted the aforementioned exhibits) would be renamed the Anna Wintour Costume Center in honor of the famous Vogue editor-in-chief. With expectations high for the newly minted museum hall, there was much surprise when the inaugural exhibit was announced: The renovated space would pay homage to British-born, American-based couturier Charles James. Many people—both in and out of the fashion world—couldn’t help but ask…“Who?”

“Everyone says, ‘Why is James not remembered?’” Harold Koda, one of the exhibit’s curators, told WWD. “In his lifetime, he was very lauded and celebrated, but many of his pieces were given directly to the Brooklyn Museum at his urging of clients. He felt his designs should be used as a reference and teaching tool.”

Despite his lack of recognition, James has been considered one of, if not the, greatest American couturier for his elaborate, highly-structured ball gowns, architectural petticoats, and the “taxi dress,” an early form of the wrap dress that James made for women to easily slip on and off in the back of a cab. “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had,” James once said. And it was that sculptural eye and devotion to femininity that allowed him to pave the way for—and serve as inspiration to—some of the world’s most celebrated designers, including Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga.

“Whether for day or evening, draped or tailored, a James design often shares an approach to, or characteristics of, his other creations,” the exhibit reads. “Essentially self-taught, he was someone for whom a compelling idea or innovation could be subject to a lifetime of revision and refinement.”

Aside from his design talent, James was quite an interesting figure on the fashion scene in his prominent years, which lasted from the mid-’20s until his death in 1978. Despite his temperamental personality, he enjoyed partying and was favored by socialites including Austine Hearst and Millicent Rogers (whose portrait sits at the beginning of the exhibit wearing an ivory satin front pouf gown and tulle stole by James). Although his company infamously went bankrupt in the ’60s, James maintained a steady set of loyal customers, as well as a strong group of artistic friends, including jewelry designer Elsa Peretti, Bill Cunningham, and Andy Warhol.

The exhibit, however, proves that evening gowns have truly become the highlight of James’s legacy (of the 75 rare pieces on display, 15 are ball gowns). “[James] believed that his singular innovations lay in the actual structure of his designs—in their architecture and engineering," as the retrospective highlights. “James is, in fact, one of only a handful of twentieth-century couturiers whose pieces withstand deep analytical scrutiny. To dissect a James gown is to reveal more fully the complete originality and virtuosity of its maker."

Although simple and less extravagant than the preceding exhibits (nothing has really stacked up since the McQueen show though, has it?), Charles James: Beyond Fashion integrates technology into the display, utilizing computer screens to generate diagrams of how the intricately-crafted pieces were constructed—the computer seemingly scans the fabric in front of it, producing a replica on screen, as well as an in-depth description of the style of dress, material, and how it was built. It’s visually not as alluring, but was certainly a nod at the Met’s progression toward more high-tech shows.

But what do James’s billowing ball gowns have to do with today? How has a couturier whose name is rarely recognized remained culturally relevant? “By rights, he should be remembered, like Chanel, as one of those revolutionary pragmatists who changed the way that women dress,” Judith Thurman wrote in The New Yorker. But James was often too early to get credit for his breakthroughs. He introduced an A-line coat 10 years before Yves Saint Laurent, who had just taken over at Dior, made headlines with the Trapeze dress. It must also be said that Chanel and Saint Laurent focused on women’s lives, while James fixated zealously on their proportions. “The feminine figure,” he believed, is “intrinsically wrong,” i.e. not platonically ideal by his standards.”

Yet despite James’s flaws, the progressive impact of his designs is undeniable. And while ball gowns may not come back into style, the appreciation for fashion as an art form (much like the way James treated fashion design) already is. 

 “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” is on view through August 10 at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Photos: The Best of The Met Gala Red Carpet

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Jamie McCarthy