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Charles James Shines at the Met

By Ellen Gilbert

A new show at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is reintroducing a master of 20th-century fashion whose name (until now, at any rate) may be unfamiliar to many: Charles James. Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Basque designer and founder of the eponymous couture house in Paris, is reported to have observed, “James is not America’s greatest couturier. He is simply the world’s best.” Christian Dior credited James’s work as the inspiration for his romantic “New Look” designs after World War II. The exhibition, which runs through August10 includes over 70 outfits and is the largest show ever devoted to James. Many of the pieces came to the Met by way of the Brooklyn Museum, an early repository for examples of the James collection.


Beyond drawing attention to a relatively unacknowledged fashion great, the exhibition, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” marks the reopening of the Museum’s Costume Institute. The refurbished department has also been renamed: it is now the Anna Wintour Costume Center, after the Vogue editor-in-chief/fashion icon whose froideur has earned her the nickname “Nuclear Wintour” (see also The Devil Wears Prada). The $40-million renovation includes a new 4,200-square-foot main gallery named for Lizzie and Jonathan (Loews Corp.) Tisch. It also boasts an updated costume conservation laboratory and expanded study and storage facilities.

Two very separate, very far apart galleries have been used for this exhibition. The distance between them, which necessitates going up or down a floor and traversing other galleries, seems curious. The lighting in both rooms is minimal, putting the spotlight on the dresses and graphic representations of how they were designed. Viewers may be divided as to which room they prefer: the downstairs Tisch gallery, where jackets and suits take their place along with ball gowns, or the special exhibition gallery on the first floor, where the single focus is gowns. Some may find it hard to resist the urge to grab a coat off a mannequin in the former, and it is interesting to note that James himself said that “my most important contribution was always in tailoring; coats, jackets, wool dresses… so few of which went into the magazines.”


James’s designs inspire awe with good reason. He used an idiosyncratic combination of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical concepts in creating dresses. In addition to the dresses and outfits themselves, a unique feature of the show is the graphic visual deconstructions of the creations, showing how each came together, piece by painstaking piece. “I long since gave up the use of the word ‘design,’ thinking that it had no validity; whereas, the word ‘shaped,’ implies an activity which only one’s self could be responsible for,” James, who was not known for his modesty, once observed. Indeed a CT-scan of his 1954 “Tree Dress” revealed 20 layers of material, 146 pattern pieces, hand and machine stitching, and some “very cool” details, like quilting, used to achieve his desired effect. While Charles James was undoubtedly a master of fashion, Henry James-loving exhibition-goers may be caught off guard by the curators’ use of the word “Jamesian” in some descriptions.

Unlike other couturiers, who typically come up with new designs each year, James returned again and again to variations on basic themes. “Year after year he reworked original designs, ignoring the sacrosanct schedule of seasons,” writes journalist Georgina O’Hara.

While they may not have been entirely new, those variations were plenty dramatic. Eroticism ruled. Writer Elaine Louie had the good fortune 40 years ago to serve as a “walker” for James and got to wear one his dresses, a “black silk bias cut dress designed 20 years before that, with short kimono sleeves, a deep V-back and two black streamers that fluttered in the back at the waist, as the breeze blew.” She recalls being “in a state of bliss” wearing “the most beautiful erotic dress.” There’s also subtle sexiness in the 1929 “Taxi dress,” which wrapped around the body and was “fastened with Bakelite clasps, so that a woman could slip into it while in the back of a taxi,” Louie writes. The 1952 “Clover Leaf” dress “did not touch the floor but undulated while the woman walked,” she adds. Although his palette was subtle, the ingenious juxtapositions of different fabrics and textures in the pieces on view at the Met are never less than gorgeous. “It was all about shape and how he could use a garment to change the shape of the wearer by simply manipulating material,” writes Colin McDowell in Business of Fashion. A garment did not have to be luxurious to win James’s approval; he loved wearing jeans,  believing that “their functionability pinpoints the sexuality of all human beings engaged in work.”


James was born in Surrey, England in 1906; his mother was from a prominent Chicago family and his father was in the British military. He attended Harrow and, briefly, the University of Bordeaux. When his family sent him to Chicago in 1924 to work with a utilities magnate, he quickly resigned to open a hat shop, his father’s displeasure notwithstanding. James’s dress-designing career began about three years later when he moved to New York City. One of his first commissions was to create “sporting togs” for the actress Gertrude Lawrence. His ingenuity was apparent early in his career. “His designs are so timeless that his 1932 culottes (then called ‘wrap-over trousers’) for the New York department store Lord & Taylor were still being sold in the 1950s,” notes one reporter.


The disconnect between the acclaim James once received and his relative obscurity today probably has a lot to do with what some would call his “high maintenance” personality. Ironically, perhaps, “James was someone who didn’t care about his clients,” said Costume Institute curator-in-charge Harold Koda recently. “He didn’t care about his partners, he didn’t even care about his family. He was dedicated completely to the pursuit of his creative expression.”

“He was a great hater and always ready for a fight,” reportedly observed Sir Hardy Amies, couturier to the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II, in 1982.  James was, Amies went on, the “Pythagoras,” “Michelangelo,” and “Einstein of fashion,” as well as “a man who made Caligula seem as open and kind as a Sunday school teacher.” James, who was openly gay for most of his life, sprang a surprise when, later in life, he married a rich American woman and fathered two children.

Shuttling between New York and Europe, James designed fabrics under the patronage of designer Paul Poiret during the mid-30s. His early circle of supporters included artists Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Pavel Tchelitchew. Back in New York City, James created clothes for the Elizabeth Arden Salon during the 1940s. One of his most successful collections was shown in Paris, though, in 1947. Brilliant photography and brilliant design come together in some 1948 Cecil Beaton photographs that include a tableau of a ballroom filled with women wearing evening gowns designed by James.

James’s list of patrons included A-listers like Babe Paley, Millicent Rogers, Dominique de Menil, Marietta Tree, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. “Although his artistic perfectionism and conflicted psychological makeup led him to behave erratically and irresponsibly in all areas of his life,” notes the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, “his clients clamored to be dressed by him and went to great lengths to support him artistically and financially.”

The ready-to-wear environment of the 1950s, however, was not congenial to a perfectionist with a short temper. Although he created some of his most fabulous gowns during those years, like the “Abstract” or “Four-Leaf Clover” gown made for Mrs. Hearst to wear to the Eisenhower inaugural ball, his business suffered. An effort to combine wholesale manufacturing with custom work in New York City ultimately failed.

“Demanding at his best,” observes Judith Thurman in a New Yorker piece about the current exhibition, “substance abuse heightened his volatility.” Among his many targets were the designer Halston (James accused him of plagiarism) and former Vogue editor and Costume Institute consultant Diana Vreeland (whom he believed was ignoring him). James was said to think that the female figure was never perfect, and Thurman suggests his zeal to “correct its flaws with a nip and a tuck, an arcing seam, a buckram implant, a cushion of air between skin and cloth diminished his relevance.”

James spent the last fourteen years of his life working from a bedroom/studio at the Chelsea Hotel. His assistant and pattern maker during those years recalls receiving $500 from James when something was sold, only to have James almost immediately ask for half of it back as a loan. Despite what is tactfully referred to as the “reduced circumstances” of James’s final years, he is still regarded with awe; Thurman begins her recent essay by saying “I have never met any of the lucky women who owned a dress by Charles James.”

The current Met exhibition ensures that more respect will be accorded James in the future. Thurman believes that curator Jan Glier Reeder’s catalog essay (“the first reliable chronology of the life and the work”) will “astonish” those who know James only through the Beaton photographs, and the daily proliferation of newspaper and magazine articles; websites; and YouTube spots in the days before the show’s opening was noteworthy.  Describing the show as a welcome change from the Costume Institute’s earlier “pop culture” efforts, writer Ashley Simpson lauded it as “a lesson in the underappreciated, indeed.”

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