Sunday, May 11, 2014

Charles James Beyond Fashion

Earlier this week, we attended the press opening for "Charles James Beyond Fashion" at The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and were dazzled. As soon as we entered The Met, we ran into milliner Stephen Jones dressed all in blue and his friend Craig. Stephen admired our hats and was utterly charming. We told him how much we loved the hat show he curated for the V&A Museum and then recreated at Bard two years ago. The event got off to a terrific start and did not disappoint.  Earlier that morning, First Lady Michelle Obama cut the ribbon dedicating the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at The Met.  Later that evening would be the black tie gala and its legendary red carpet photo op extraordinaire.  To check out images and videos from the exhibition and the red carpet, click here.

Charles James (1906-1978) was an American designer who is perhaps best known for his ball gowns. They are pretty fabulous but his day wear, suits, dresses and coats are pretty swell too!  This 1948 Cecil Beaton photograph of James with a model (courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art) gives you an idea of his flair for the dramatic and his ability to drape and cut fabric to look as light as air.

This black wool ribbed knit "Taxi Dress" circa 1932 is a classic example of his flair for daywear. (Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

James' 1946 Lyre Coat in red wool cavalry twill looks quite feminine and was a 1949 gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers and is part of The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

James' 1937 white celanese satin and eiderdown one-of-a-kind evening jacket (loaned by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London) was his response to Else Schiaparelli's boxy fur jackets. He likened the technical challenge of stitching fabric and eiderdown filling into a complex sculptural form to that of a juggler who keeps several balls in the air at one time. Its biomorphic lines which James referred to as "large floating arabesques" speak to his singular affinity for designing clothing in relation to human anatomy.

Openly gay, James married late in life and had two children. On the birth of Charles, Jr., James produced a line of children's wear, including the blue cape coat at left. The arms of the adult version, at right, proved a bit trickier, and James wound up using the elbow of a sewage pipe (in the exhibition, but not shown here) to model the adult sleeves on.

James started out as a milliner in Chicago.  According to Judith Thurman, in her article Dressing Up in the New Yorker magazine, he chose this career as it seemed most likely to be distasteful to his English father.  His father forbade the family to patronize the shop.  His American mother, however, sent her wealthy friends there, and he was immediately successful. We thought (we hoped!) the green confection below would be a daring James hat.  As it turns out, it's a daring James fan.

His sketches, like this one, are emblematic of his incorporation of biomorphic lines into his designs.

Vogue Magazine is a huge sponsor of the event. Hamish Bowles stopped to take his own smart phone photos of the exhibit. In the left of the photo, you can see the back of the 1956 two-piece floor length white ivory rayon-cotton matelasse Dinner Suit which had a mirror-image version in black.

All the heavy-hitters from fashion, academia and curating made the scene, like triple-threat Dr. Valerie Steele (left), Director and Chief Curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who attended with a friend.

We especially enjoyed seeing friends like photographer Rose Hartman...

and David Noh, who writes for the Gay City News, whom we first met at an opening at FIT...

and editor and writer, Shirine Saad whom we met at The Brooklyn Museum's Jean Paul Gaultier show. Loved her Fornasetti tie.

Jewelry designer Emiko wore one of her geometric metal necklaces to the exhibit.

In order to view the two sections of the exhibition, we had to pass through The Met's main lobby, which was being readied for the gala opening festivities later that evening, so we got to view this enormous assemblage. The white evening gown and peach-colored skirt were entirely covered in roses. This photo gives you an idea of the scale of the installation.

Waaaaay over on the other side of the building were the ball gowns, which James is best known for.

At the entrance, Harold Koda, head of the Costume Institute, held forth on these muslin drafts of gowns owned by Millicent Rogers, and later donated by her to The Brooklyn Museum.  The Metropolitan acquired them from the Brooklyn.  That's Millicent in the painting on the left wall, wearing a Charles James creation.  James also set his hand to designing interiors.  That's one of his sofas in the background.

This is one of Rogers' gowns.  According to the labels, James was inspired to make it shortly after Georgia O'Keeffe had a show of her sexually charged flower paintings.  The front of the gown is a nearly explicit interpretation of female genitalia.

Here's Millicent Rogers, photographed in the gown for Town & Country in 1948.  Despite the deep conservatism of the period, no one seems to have been scandalized by the gown's references.  All around the room at eye level are James quotations.  One that seems appropriate here is "What, after all, is the true function of fashion but to be a rehearsal for propagation?"

James was known to approach his work almost like an engineer.  For the red Tree ball gown (named for its wearer, Mrs. Tree), it says in the scrolling label, James noted "Mrs. Tree is a large woman; my problem was to reduce a very substantial bust and create a hollow rib-cage."

In this x-ray photograph, we can see a few of the hidden solutions to his problem.  There are two zippers, one for the skirt and one for the foundation, and weights "for front drapery".  Each gown in the room is accompanied by scrolling commentary and a robotic arm which moves around the dress pinpointing with a laser beam exactly what the viewer is reading about.  The small cross at the top of the x-ray photo indicates where the robotic arm is pointing.

This amazingly structured ball gown, with a look almost like a down comforter, was worn by Cynthia Cunningham at her coming-out party in 1951.  There are equally billowy puffs in the back. At one point, we found ourselves with Stephen Jones again, and asked him if, on looking at the gowns, he couldn't help but imagine making hats for them. No, he said, to our surprise. Maybe "a small hair jewel or a tiara". "The dresses really have enough going on all by themselves", he said. "They don't need a hat."

Another highly structured gown is the so-called lampshade evening dress, dating to around 1955, with the deep hem supported by "concentric and transverse boning".

It's easy to see why this ball gown, dating to 1955, is called The Butterfly.  Even the torso of the dress has the striped segmentation of a butterfly's thorax.

Perhaps the piece de resistance is the so-called clover dress, so named for its four spread out 'leaves'.  This one was worn by Hope Bryce, who later married Otto Preminger.

Below is the Costume Institute's video explaining the construction of the gown. (You might want to turn off the sound, which is only ambient noise.)

What we're wearing:
Jean is wearing an Amy Downs hat; Prada jacket; Kedem Sasson skirt; Fabulous Fanny's sunglass frames; Alexander Wang purse; black and white jewelry, a mix of vintage bakelite and mid-century modern plastic; and her customized Dansko clogs.

Valerie is wearing a vintage black straw hat, unlabeled, Hiroko Koshino dress, plastic target earrings, foam rubber bangles, and invisible black and white spectator shoes.


  1. Charles James is one of my favorites. How fabulous to see his designs up close and personal and to talk with Stephen Jones all in the same day.

  2. I would love to see this exhibit, but I suppose I will have to be content with ordering the book. I accidentally met Stephen Jones once and he was an absolute doll. That was over 20 years ago and I still remember his kindness to a gushing student of fashion. I also bought one of his hats, a lacquered straw overseas cap, which I still own and wear.