Charles James Exhibition at the Met

Costume Institute By Contributing Writer Jennifer Eberhart

At this year's Met Gala, Sarah Jessica Parker wore a black and white Oscar de la Renta gown. Victoria Beckham wore her own design. Lupita Nyong’o wore a Prada fringe dress with a Cartier tiara, and power couple Jay Z and Beyonce both wore Givenchy Couture.  You saw and admired all the beautiful outfits the celebrities wore to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, but do you know the dresses that the museum was celebrating?

After years of reconstruction, the Costume Institute has finally re-opened as the Anna Wintour Costume Center with their inaugural exhibition, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.”

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While Charles James is not a household name today like Christian Dior or Louis Vuitton, James created dresses for the most glamorous women of his day.  Ladies like the heiress Millicent Rogers, journalist Austine McDonnell Hearst and art patron Dominique de Menil all named James as their couturier in the mid-20th century.

The dresses on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are not only fashionable, but also combine James’s love and knowledge of sculpture, architecture, and engineering.  These classic dresses are forms that we could see any of today’s singers and movie stars wearing to only the classiest events.

What will you see on display?

Imagine yourself in one of James’s clover leaf dresses, a few of which are on display in the first floor gallery space.  One in particular that immediately captures attention is made of pink silk faille, copper silk shantung, and covered with black silk lace with ivory silk – the top is a fitted ivory corset and the bottom fans out into a clover shape, covered with lace flowers.  Another much talked-about gown is called the “Butterfly,” so named for its tight, cocoon-like dress, which fans out in back to a transformed gown – the one on display is made of brown silk chiffon, cream and brown silk satin, and dark brown nylon tulle for the back.

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James only ever used the best, most lavish materials for the most spectacular gowns.  Dresses were named both for the way they were made and for their look: “La Sirene Evening Dress,” “Figure Eight Dinner Dress,” “Trapeze Coat,” “Pear Shape Cocktail Dress,” “Ribbon Dressing Gown,” and “Swan Ball Gown” are among the pieces on view.

There are three exhibition spaces used for “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.” The lower level (accessible through the Egyptian Art galleries) contains the Anna Wintour Costume Center with a preview of James’s works, from evening dresses to coats, cocktail dresses to suits. Geometric cuts are prominent in this gallery.

A second gallery, the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, abuts this one, and includes some of James’s scrapbooks, drawings, and photographs.  This particular gallery is transformed into a would-be designer’s studio, with a few mannequins and dress forms interspersed with his sketches.

The final aspect of the exhibition is in the ground floor special exhibition galleries (accessible through the Greek and Roman galleries) and is where the jewels of the collection are housed.  Each of fifteen ball gowns is given its own platform, computer, and moving video camera that zooms in to specific areas of the dress to show you exactly how each gown was made.

If you’re looking for some fashion inspiration, stop by the Met’s new Charles James exhibition – you’ll wish you could climb into every last gown on display.  The exhibition continues through August 10.

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