leanor Foa Dienstag

Charles James: Beyond Fashion at the Met

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After a ribbon cutting by Michelle Obama to open the renovated Costume Institute, now named the Anna Wintour Costume Center, a none-too-happy press corps, unaccustomed to waiting on a long line, slowly filed into the Metropolitan Museum, where finishing touches were being applied to a huge flower sculpture (shades of Macy’s) for the Gala that night.

2Charles James: Beyond Fashion

The opening exhibition of Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906-1978) made the wait worthwhile. James, master of the curved and sensuous line, was a brilliant designer, and this an exhilarating exhibition of his work. You will be amazed and enthralled by his gowns, suits, day dresses, coats, hats and jackets. They are beautifully organized and displayed in two separate spaces (and this bifurcation is a bit odd), one on the first floor and the other, downstairs, in the Costume Center. Despite the lack of physical continuity (bound to confuse visitors not familiar with the Met), kudos to curators Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, who worked with the architecture and design firm, Diller Scofidio +Renfro, to produce a flexible, technologically sophisticated and dramatic setting for Costume Center exhibitions.

3Flower Sculpture

If you want to be ravished by beauty, start on the first floor where the ball gowns are exhibited. (Some may recall seeing a number of them at the Brooklyn Museum in 2010. See our story.)

4Harold Koda, Curator of the Costume Institute

Spotlights within a vast, dimly-lit mirrored room, highlight fifteen of James’s most glamorous gowns, famous for both their names — “The Clover Leaf,” the “Butterfly,” and “The Swan” – and their intricate, almost architectural construction. Pithy quotes by James line the mirrored walls and programmed light projectors reveal, onion-like, the complex layers of each gown. You don’t have to be in the fashion field or a dressmaker to find the combination of his artistry, imagination and ingenuity, impressive.

5First Floor Exhibition Room

6Ivory Gown

7Red Gown

8Quote on Mirrored Wall

9Pleated “Butterfly” Gown

10Emerald Green Gown

11Clover Leaf Gown

12Swan Ball Gown

13Photo of Gypsy Rose Lee in Swan Ball Gown

14Catalogue of Exhibition

15Overview of Downstairs Space

The downstairs Costume Gallery focuses more on James’s day wear, some evening attire, as well as his drawings, pattern pieces, scrapbooks, maquettes and accessories, including hats and a splendid white satin eiderdown evening jacket, considered the first puffer coat. It looks utterly modern.

16White Evening Jacket

17Evening Dresses


19Green Suit

20Red and Green Dresses

21Red One Button Coat

For some of us, the wool coats and suits conjure up the essence of the 1950s, and remind us how our fashionable mothers occasionally dressed up in gloves, hats and an impeccably tailored outfit to “go downtown” and shop. We might not want that era back, but I, for one, sure wouldn’t mind the bliss of slipping into the svelte glamour of one of those outfits.

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

Anna Wintour Costume Center at Met Museum Opens
Charles James: Beyond Fashion
May 8 – August 10, 2014


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