Charles James: Beyond Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an exhibition not up to the usual “take your breath away” standards I’m used to seeing at the annual Metropolitan Costume Institute. It’s a small exhibit that highlights the design process and is actually better suited for The Museum of Art & Design or The Museum at FIT. Something else that is different is that the show is split into two different locations in the museum so it loses continuity. One part is in a special exhibition gallery space on the first floor near the Roman & Greek sculptures. The other is downstairs from the Egyptian galleries in the ‘Lizzie & Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the new Anna Wintour Costume Institute’. That’s a lot of names getting credit for an exhibit of just 75 pieces of clothing! Even though there are a limited number of dresses in a limited space this show is still worth seeing, but it won’t leave you as impressed as you may have been after seeing Alexander McQueen in 2011 or Punk Chaos last year.
Although I didn’t get to see the show with the rich and famous on the night of the Gala event I did get to see it the following day. Usually the clothing exhibitions at the Met are enormous. This one is more modest (I have no idea how they dealt with all the people in big dresses the night of the Gala). If you plan on attending this show I warn you it is going to be uncomfortably crowded.
The upstairs gallery has most of the ball gowns. What is immediately striking is the shape of the dresses. The details of the gowns are different but most have a figure eight-shape. James folded, wrapped and draped fabric so it would fall in ways that flattered the female figure. He loved the hour-glass shape and did whatever it took to enhance and embellish it. The most fascinating part of this show, thanks to technology, is the ability to see the dresses get de-constructed and then re-constructed. You can see the creativity behind how the pieces of the patterns were turned into gowns. The downstairs gallery has some more ball gowns as well as more casual clothing and coats (by 1950’s standards) that I didn’t find particularly exciting.
James apparently was very aware of his talent and must have had quite an ego. He donated newspaper clippings, photographs and pattern pieces to the Brooklyn Museum while he was still alive and asked that his clients consider directing their clothing to the museum as well. It’s obvious that James borrowed design elements from his predecessors but his clothing with the spirals, asymmetry and gorgeous shapes will continue to inspire future generations. Luckily for us we can see his work today and perhaps imagine what we’d look like sashaying into a room with a very voluptuous shaped gown designed by Charles James. LAR
The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Anna Wintour Costume Institute, 1000 Fifth Avenue
Suggested Admission $25 – You always can pay whatever you wish