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The art of fashion

Designer Charles James is the focus of new exhibit at the Met in NYC

Created date

June 23rd, 2014
Charles James ball gowns 1948
Charles James ball gowns 1948

There is art and there is fashion and only rarely do the two come together as they do in the work of Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906–1978). While not exactly a household name, James was an extraordinary designer whose legacy continues to reverberate in today’s modern collections. If James is not as well known as Dior or Balenciaga, it is because he produced relative few garments over the course of his career. Somewhat stunted by his complex and perfectionistic personality, his imaginative designs and his unorthodox creative process nevertheless made him an icon in the world of fashion. 

Charles James: Beyond Fashion is the inaugural exhibition in the new Anna Wintour Costume Center of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. The exhibit features 65 of James’s creations and covers the span of his career from the 1920s until his death in 1978. It is spread out between two different galleries and is accentuated by videos that help explain and illuminate James’s particular genius—especially with regard to the sculptural and architectural qualities of his designs.

“Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching,” says Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute. “He dreamt that his lifetime of personal creative evolution and the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students. In our renovated galleries, we will fulfill his goal and illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math, and science.”

Early years

Born in Surrey, England, in 1906, James began his fashion career at the age of 19—first as a milliner in Chicago under the name Boucheron and later as a dressmaker in New York. In 1929, he returned to Europe where he became acquainted with people like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior. These artistic visionaries were impressed with James, introducing him to European socialites who soon became his clients.  

James had no formal dressmaking training. His approach to design was based on mathematical, architectural, and sculptural concepts as they relate to the human body. During his time spent in London and Paris, James developed a fascination with complex cut and seaming that lasted throughout his career. His originality inspired contemporaries like Christian Dior who attributed his “New Look” to a James idea. 

Success

In 1939, James went back to New York, opening his own workroom and salon at 699 Madison Avenue. He established himself as couturier to the upper crust of Manhattan society—style-setting heiress Millicent Rogers; the art patron Dominique de Menil; Austine McDonnell Hearst, journalist and wife of publisher William Randolph Hearst, Jr.; and the entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee.

The pinnacle of James’s career came in 1953 with the design of a ball gown for Austine McDonnell Hearst to wear to the Eisenhower inaugural ball. An undulating four-lobed skirt known as the “Abstract” or “Clover Leaf,” the gown is a feat of engineering. 

Legacy

While mostly remembered for his innovative ball gown designs, James’ legacy can be seen in everyday fashions as well. He is credited with designing the first puffer coat. He was awarded two Coty awards in 1950 and 1954 for his masterful skills as a colorist, draper, and sculptor, and Neiman-Marcus honored his outstanding contributions to the fashion industry in 1953.

Toward the end of the 1950s, James’s career began to fade. Plagued by financial problems, litigation, and a basic inability to compromise and get along in the tempestuous fashion industry, James continued to design for a small but loyal group of clients. In later years, James moved his business and his residence to the legendary Chelsea Hotel, where he continued to serve clients until his death in 1978.

“James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression,” says Jan Glier Reeder, consulting curator in The Costume Institute, who is organizing the exhibition with Harold Koda. “In fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘his work went beyond fashion and was a fine art.’”  

“Charles James considered himself an artist, and approached fashion with a sculptor’s eye and a scientist’s logic,” says Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the museum. “As such, the Met is the ideal place to explore the rich complexity of his innovative work.”

Charles James: Beyond Fashion will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through August 10, 2014. For more information, visit metmuseum.org.

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