Museums

Transcending Trends: Charles James at the Anna Wintour Costume Center

by Alexander Cavaluzzo on May 8, 2014

Eight models wearing Charles James gowns, in French & Company's eighteenth century French paneled room

Charles James Ball Gowns (1948) (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton/ Vogue/Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast)

Charles James is probably not a name that is as instantly recognizable in fashion as Coco Chanel or Christian Dior, but as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion shows us, his work and legacy transcend the zeitgeist and ushers us back to a period of supreme, magnificent decadence in American fashion.

It’s that decadence that ultimately ruined the notoriously bad businessman’s line and prevented him from being a household name in the 21st century. But when he was at his zenith, his name was amongst the top in the fashion world. Hanging out with the likes of Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior (who credited his revolutionary “New Look” to James’s initial ideas), James struck an impressive chord with high society and artists alike. And with clientele like Dominique de Menil, Austine Hearst, and Millicent Rogers, his creations stood out as the crème de la crème at one point in history, even if his mentality to care more about his work than his business ultimately forced him out of the industry.

Designer Charles James pinning a suit on model (possibly Ricki Van Dusen) (1948) (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton/Vogue/Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast)

There is something honorable and noble about his artist’s mentality and scientist’s precision wrapped up in a fashion designer’s body, and the exquisite craftsmanship of his signature gowns rivals the meticulous buildings of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe or Jørn Utzon. Some of his gowns were so overgrown and complicated that they weighed almost 20 pounds, suggesting that the fashions themselves were not supplicants to a woman’s beauty, but standalone sculptures in their own right.

Seeing them in person, raised on platforms and spread across the room with liberal spacing, certainly mimics the effect of walking through a sculpture garden. Though the sparse selection and cimmerian atmosphere (likely to preserve the fabrics, but still) brought down the exuberance of the displays, the gowns command attention even in the dark. His iconic Clover Leaf ballgown, represented here in two incarnations (one of pearl duchesse satin with velvet panels and one with black lace and copper silk faille detailing) expertly illustrates his brilliance, with a tight, doll-like corset perched precariously atop four stiff peaks jutting outwards in unbearably perfect symmetry. Like tailoring a Kleenex, he took flowing fabrics and hammered them into architectural masterpieces.

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First Floor Special Exhibition Gallery
Charles James, “Clover Leaf” Ball Gown (1953) (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

But his ballgowns don’t deserve all the credit. The next gallery, housed in the newly christened Anna Wintour Costume Center, features an array of frocks, coats and suits, which, while not as ostentatious, are just as indicative of Charles James’ signature aesthetic and construction. Perhaps even more so through their subtlety. To witness his flair for construction in simpler garments, as in a Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat-eqsue cape or avant-garde suits for eccentric ladies who lunch, illuminates his genius. Unfortunately, the breadth of dressforms piled on top of one another, akin to a lesser costume show at a smaller museum, dilutes the effect and makes it difficult to appreciate each seam and ruffle up close and uninterrupted, which is quite important when viewing the work of this particular designer in person. The final offering of Charles James: Beyond Fashion is a small room housing ephemera of the designer’s life: editorials, sketches, photographs as well as the millinery outputs that started his career, which overall paint a splendid punctuation for the exhibition.

Even the sole garment of the final gallery, housed in a small vitrine, a white satiny jacket puffing out with strange volume, shows how even though his name may be obscure, James has influenced the fashions of the future. He played with proportion prescient to the volumetric concoctions the likes of Rei Kawakubo and Viktor & Rolf would become famous for down the line. And of course his cultural inheritors, namely Oscar de la Renta and, more recently, Zac Posen, have inadvertently carried on his legacy of rich, aristocratic American fashion. But any lineage or interpretation, sadly, was overlooked in this retrospective.

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Anna Wintour Costume Center, Carl and Iris Apfel Barrel Gallery (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Perhaps coming off a string of very loud (and somewhat polarizing) exhibitions, the Met decided to do something subdued, classically beautiful and overall safe. It’s hard to screw up decadent concoctions of duchesse satin and silk faille from one of the great American masters of fashion, but it’s easy to be underwhelmed at the effort as a whole. Beautiful? Yes. Provocative? No.

Charles James was a brilliant and under-appreciated force in American fashion. His efforts have influenced many, yet go unrecognized. And knowing that the Met has the definitive collection of Charles James’s oeuvre in the world — after acquiring the Brooklyn Museum’s amassment of his raiment — one would hope there would be more to this show than simple displays of his work.

Sadly, perhaps there’s little reason anymore for me or anyone to expect grand methodologies or analyses to be applied to fashion when it’s housed in a museum, but the prospect leaves little to hope for in the future. This was a prime opportunity to thoroughly and contextually educate the public of an astounding yet unfamiliar figure in fashion, as well as drawing parallels between him and current designers, but we’re forced to settle for unimaginative displays. Charles James deserved better, but his moment in the spotlight is important nonetheless.

Charles James: Beyond Fashion opens today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and continues through August 10.

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