It's time for a trip to the Charles James exhibit currently up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 10th. Charles James was the great American couturier who famously draped and shaped some of the most beautiful dresses created in the American haute couture. James, who was self-taught, designed in his native London before arriving in New York City in 1940. The designer was an artist whose medium was fabric and whose dresses were masterpieces. He was renowned for his striking color combinations, and his cut and construction, always refining and perfecting his living sculptures. But he was also eccentric and had a hard time running a business. The designer lived and worked in one room in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street. When he passed away there in 1978 at the age of 73 of pneumonia, he was largely unrecognized and unappreciated. However, his structured dresses with narrow waists and flaring skirts influenced Christian Dior when Dior created the New Look in the late 40's, and so though he is not a well-known household name, Charles James shaped the direction of fashion.
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photograph by Cecil Beaton.
The exhibition was curated by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, and is located in two areas at the museum – in the new Anna Wintour Costume Center on the lower level as well as an exhibition gallery on the first floor. The show was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York architects we met at a book party at Ann Ziff's fine jewelry store.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro lit the clothes dramatically to highlight their shape. Charles James loved to combine different fabrics like deep, dark velvet and glossy, lustrous satin –
which is here worn by the great Babe Paley herself.
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Besides the clothes, there are on display accessories, drawings, videos, and some pithy quotes from Mr. James.
During the press preview for the exhibition, workers were preparing for the big Met Ball which was being held that very night. Here in the Great Hall, a kind of giant deconstructed Charles James ballgown made out of orange roses loomed over the entrance.
I had the pleaure of talking with the brilliant curator Harold Koda at the press preview, and my friend Scott Brasher made a video of the visit. Enjoy this nice long talk with Harold, and learn more about the great American fashion designer Charles James.