With most fashion exhibitions that I’ve been to, I normally have a modicum of knowledge of what I’m about to see. In some cases, I’m anticipating the examples of work of a certain designer be it Jean Paul Gaultier, Prada or Paul Poiret of what I’m going to see. That wasn’t the case with Charles James: Beyond Fashion, which is about to open at the Metropolitan Museum tomorrow. For ONCE in a blue blue moon, I happen to be in New York for the opening of Costume Institute’s headlining exhibition and it also happens to be one where I stood to learn a lot. Well, at least a lot more beyond the iconic Charles James image below, photographed by Cecil Beaton – a perfect ballgown arrangement of pastel taffeta and silk satin.
In what is the biggest retrospective of Charles James, curators Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder delve deep underneath that vague image of evening wear rarified finery. Few will know that James was said to have inspired Christian Dior’s New Look, that Cristobal Balenciaga thought highly of him and that Paul Poiret said James did with silhouette what he did with colour. This isn’t all immediately apparent in the exhibition but instead as you enter the first floor gallery, confronted by a James’ sculpture of his idealised female form, you are bowled by astonishing technical output. And that spoke volumes all by itself.
The first thing I learnt was that James was a pattern cutting genius – a sculptor of cloth – and so fifteen dresses, sans mannequins, look like they are suspended in darkness on circular platforms. They stand alone because they are magnificent in their inception. They are illuminated and highlighted with a mini video projector, drawing pattern-cutting lines and compass dots on the silhouette to reveal body-scanning mappings, which dissect the structure of every dress. The materials are expounded. The individual pattern pieces are exposed. X-ray imagery of the dresses are shown. Historical references are illustrated. This technology, devised by DS+R is something I’ve never seen used when showcasing clothing. It adds a brilliantly educational and informative aspect to the art of exhibiting clothing that is truly innovative.
Of course Charles James gowns warrant this amount of in-depth analysis. The mathematical construction of these dresses are quite astounding as you stand there looking at both dress and video screen. The “Clover Leaf” dress designed for Austine Hearst for Eisenhower’s Inaugural ball was thought by James to be his greatest accomplishment and indeed, as you watch an undulating four-point curved semi-bias cut pattern piece come together on a video figurine, paired with intricate lace panelling, you have to wonder how it was that this self-taught designer was able to come up with these strokes of brilliance. Charles James would laboriously rework details on dresses for hours on end – something that was ultimately not financially prudent – the results are literally sculptures for the body, where James used fabric and cloth to shift people’s perceptions of women’s bodies. Ergonomic engineering for the female form, if you will. Other ensuing gowns named the “Butterfly”, “Tree” and “Swan” are similarly spectacular with all the accompanying information. The set up makes you stand for at least five to ten minutes in front of each individual dress just so you can take all the information in and that’s a good thing in this modern era of rushing through exhibitions and ticking boxes.
All of this technical magic doesn’t detract from the emotive aspect of Charles James’ work, as you meander through the exhibition, wondering why his innovations aren’t more widely known. Downstairs in the newly inaugurated Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries, James’ day and evening wear are further explored. A-line coats, which preceded Yves Saint Laurent’s versions at Dior, dresses in wrap and spiral formations for ease of wear, dresses with drapes and folds which flattered and sculpted the figure (it was interesting to note his daywear for “larger” figures) and odd one-offs such as his eiderdown jacket created in 1937, thought to be one of the first ever puffer jackets. However, it’s not the ones that are historically first that matters but those has have turned these design breakthroughs into a longstanding design signature at brands which exist today. Charles James is largely not credited in this regard.
A thorough read of Judith Thurman’s article “Dressing Up” about Charles James in the latest issue of the New Yorker, adds colour to this display of technical design feat. For instance, I didn’t know that James was part of the London Bright Young Things set, a friend of Stephen Tennant (whose biography I love to dive into). And of course you learn about the sad ending to James’ career as he failed to keep up with the tumultuous changes to the fashion industry in the mid-1950s and ran into financial and litigation troubles. James finally ended his days in the Chelsea Hotel in destitution, whilst devoting his time to teaching and teaching people about the “fine points of couture”. Musicians and artists, who have ended their days at the Chelsea are largely remembered in posterity. The fashion world though is a bit harsher and Charles James beyond diehard fashion history aficionados isn’t a name widely known at large. That will of course change after this exhibition.
The conclusion I was going to write to about this exhibition, was that it serves as a fine example of showcasing a designer, whose lifespan won’t go beyond museum pieces and history book footnotes. And that’s a good thing when the designer in question was such a specific individual – a tortured genius – with ideas that were so uniquely his own. That however isn’t the case anymore as it has just been announced that Harry Weinstein will be relaunching Charles James as a brand, with Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman as creative director. There’s something a bit deflating about the news. It goes back to my own thoughts about the revival of defunct houses. One suspects that Weinstein sees this as a prime opportunity to capitalise on the current wave of Charles James lovin’. Does a name like Charles James need revival, when James’ own mode of working was so specifically of its time? That leaves a curious chapter yet to unfold. For now though, a visit to this exhibition at the Met should be high on anyone’s New York agenda. The design feats seen there are after all, unlikely to be equalled at whatever manifestation of Charles James we see in the future.