May 25, 2014

"Charles James: Beyond Fashion" at the new Costume Institute

From its humble beginnings in 1937 as the Museum of Costume Art, to its most recent incarnation as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always offered an extensive repository of apparel, textiles and accessories for fashion aficionados of every ilk.  Today, the department features a 35,000 piece inventory of men's, women's and children's garments covering seven centuries, an extensive fashion library and a state-of-the-art conservation center.  It is one of largest and most important collections in the world and a center for the study of fashion and costume in relation to art, history and culture.

Because of the fragile nature of textiles, there is no permanent exhibit on view.  Rather, The Costume Institute presents one very special exhibition every year, timed to open with the social event of the season - the Costume Institute Gala Benefit.  Since 1995 this affair has been co-chaired by Anna Wintour, a Museum trustee, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue and a style setter extraordinaire.  Invited guests are an A+++ list of stars, fashionistas and high rollers who come to see and be seen, to publicize the show and to raise a lot of money for the Museum.

This year's exhibition is dedicated to the Anglo-American designer Charles James, who, though not so well known today, was considered the king of couture in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  He is credited with the invention of the wrap dress, the strapless dress and the down-filled jacket while his ball gowns were worn by the likes of Millicent Rogers, Babe Paley and Lily Pons.  Typically his designs are defined by a sculptural, almost architectural, quality that made them works of art far beyond mere dresses.

Charles James was born in England in 1906 to a British military captain and his American heiress wife.  His childhood was one of privilege and fostered his life-long love of all things luxurious and extravagant - an obsession which he often had difficulty in supporting.  James began his fashion career as a milliner but soon moved on to dressmaking where he could more fully express his visions of beauty and opulence.

Always one small step ahead of the bill collector and sometimes in hot water with his clients for failing to deliver on time, Charles James nevertheless remained a highly sought after couturier for society ladies.  The reason was simple - a Charles James gown was unlike any other and the wearer would look like a fairy tale princess.

The Met's exhibition is divided into two sections located about a five-minute walk from each other on different floors of the Museum.  I'm going to begin on the ground floor, in the newly renovated Costume Center, where two galleries give us an introduction to this famed designer.  The first, smaller, room is filled with patterns, press clippings, photographs, other ephemera and a few early designs including his one-of-a-kind eiderdown jacket.

The second, larger, downstairs gallery is divided into four themes - "Spirals and Wraps", "Drapes and Folds", "Platonic Form" and "Anatomical Cut" each illustrated not only with examples of his clothing on dressmakers' dummies, but enhanced with video screens demonstrating how each "look" was created.  For example, the 1932 "Taxi" dress - a simple wool wrap dress thus named because it was so easy to put on, a woman could get dressed in a taxi - is virtually dissected and reassembled so even a viewer with no sewing skills could understand how it worked.

Now let's move upstairs to the Museum's main floor, just off the Greek and Roman Galleries, where we enter a foyer with a group of "muslins" or mock-ups on mannequins posed around a butterfly sofa.

Just beyond is the high point of the exhibition.  In a large, dramatically lit room, are fifteen stupendous examples of Charles James' ball gowns, each posed individually on a small, round stage.  There are no mannequins to distract from the magnificence of these creations.  Each design, including the "Four Leaf Clover" (see below), "Tree", "Lampshade", "Swan" and "Butterfly" is a masterpiece of technical ingenuity using seams, boning, frameworks, layers and draping to enhance the properties of the fabric itself.

How do we know what lies underneath the sumptuous examples of sartorial splendor?  In an amazing application of fashion and technology, the Met's curators have installed video monitors at each station that act not only as information placards but also, and here is where we dive into the 21st century, use robotic arms to scan and analyse the gowns.  The robot provides a schematic blue print of the structure of the dress, then fast forwards, step-by-step, through to the finished product.  Here is where the magic unfolds, like, for instance, in the "Umbrella" dress, where we can see exactly how James used a rod system, very similar to an umbrella's ribs, to create intricate folds in the skirt of an evening gown.

In what can only be described as marvels of engineering, Charles James transforms yards of taffeta, velvet, satin and chiffon into the most incredible evening creations a woman could dream of wearing.  It is truly, as the title suggests, "Beyond Fashion", where style meets sculpture and a dress becomes a work of art.

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