Charles James at The Met in New York – Text by Eugene Rabkin, photography by Maarit Aakko

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Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the press preview of the Charles James exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

James was a supremely talented Anglo-American couturier who at the apex of his career in the mid-20th Century was widely considered a genius. Christian Dior called him “the greatest talent of my generation.” He had also an immense talent for narcissism and petulance that makes Galliano's antics seem like schoolboy stuff. By the end of James’s life, he has managed to alienate even his most ardent supporters. He met his end in the true Oscar Wilde manner, dying in poverty at the Chelsea hotel in 1978, his reputation falling into obscurity.

Harold Koda, the head curator of the Costume Institute at the Met, aims to change that.  “We wanted to do something that was a revelation to the public that was worthy of a costume installation in an art museum, and James is perfect for us because he never thought of himself as a commercial designer. He thought he was an artist and that clothes were his medium of expression,” Koda told me at the press preview. Indeed, one of James’s quotes that dot the exhibit reads, “Brancusi has his medium: Picasso, Faulkner, Shostakovich, theirs. Mine happens to be cloth.”

The exhibit, featuring sixty-five garments, is split in two, which might make viewing annoying if you have to navigate the hordes of museum goers on a Sunday. The first part is devoted to James’s most dramatic dresses that are set up at a significant distance from each other so that the viewer can circumnavigate them. The second part is a two-room installation – one has more of James’s designs and the other is primarily devoted to his sketches and notes.

The question you may ask is why, in 2014, should we be compelled to look at what is essentially a bunch of ball gowns? How is this relevant to fashion today? The answer lies in James’s superior construction techniques and in the way heapproached the work. “When you examine the kind of a deconstruction we have done on James even the people who have no idea about fashion will leave with an understanding that he was doing something special,” Koda said.

To that effect The Met hired a multidisciplinary architecture firm to mount cameras on robotic arms that zipped around (and – oh-la-la! – under) the dresses in order to highlight their construction, even going as far as using X-ray technology to deconstruct some of them. “We wanted a representation that was analytical but understandable to people who know nothing about construction at all,” said Koda. “One of my least favorites – but everyone else loves it! – is the very invasive camera that goes under the skirt of a dress. What it does reveal is James as a colorist – you are just not aware that the shimmer of the brown is the layering of brown, white, pink, fuscia, and that the interior of this voluminous gown is a very narrow column of ivory taffeta.”

What makes James’s work is even more impressive is that he was self-taught. It was only be experimenting on his own, learning to fail, and realizing how to correct his mistakes that he has gained such mastery of draping and tailoring.

And that is what is so relevant for today’s fashion world in which so many “designers” merely send off their sketches for someone else to make.



Charles James: Beyond Fashion opens to the public this Thursday and runs through August 14th.

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