Nancy James in Charles James Swan Gown, 1955, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.

Charles James, Designer, Couturier Honored by Fashion Institute

Charles James Butterfly Gown, 1954, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.

Charles James, 1952, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Look Job 52-1129 Frame-18.

Babe Paley in Charles James Gown, 1950, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by John Rawlings, Rawlings / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast.

Charles James, 1936, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's,

Charles James with Model, 1948, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), “Clover Leaf” Evening Dress, 1953, White silk satin, white silk faille, black silk-rayon velvet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth Fairall, 1953 (C.I.53.73). Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis.

Austine Hearst in Charles James Clover Leaf Gown, ca. 1953, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photographer Unknown,© Bettmann/CORBIS.

 

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 5th Avenue
212-731-1498 
New York
Charles James: Beyond Fashion
May 8-August 10, 2014

The Costume Institute’s new Anna Wintour Costume Center opens May 8 with the inaugural exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion, on view from May 8 through August 10, 2014, which examines the career of legendary 20th-century Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906-1978).  The exhibition is presented in two locations — the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Center as well as special exhibition galleries on the Museum’s first floor.  The exhibition explores James’s design process and his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today.

“Charles James considered himself an artist, and approached fashion with a sculptor’s eye and a scientist’s logic,” said Mr. Campbell.  “As such, the Met is the ideal place to explore the rich complexity of his innovative work.” 

“Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching,” said Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute.  “He dreamt that his lifetime of personal creative evolution and the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students.  In our renovated galleries, we will fulfill his goal and illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math, and science.”

Exhibition Overview The retrospective exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, features approximately 75 of the most notable designs produced by James over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978.  The first-floor special exhibition galleries spotlights the resplendent glamour and breathtaking architecture of James’s ball gowns from the 1940s through 1950s, worn by such renowned clients as Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil.

The new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James’s biography via archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his last studio in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel.  The evolution and metamorphosis by James of specific designs over decades also shown. Video animations in both exhibition locations illustrate how he created anatomically considered dresses that sculpted and reconfigured the female form. 

“James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression,” said Jan Glier Reeder, Consulting Curator in The Costume Institute, who is organizing the exhibition with Harold Koda. “In fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘...his work went beyond fashion and was a fine art.’” Beyond Fashion was also the title James chose for the autobiography he never wrote.

James was so keen to ensure his legacy by preserving the "corpus" of his work in one institution that he persuaded important clients to donate his designs to the Brooklyn Museum.  The transfer of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection to the Metropolitan Museum in 2009 augmented the Met’s Charles James holdings, and with recent acquisitions of early designs and archives, the Museum now has the most definitive body of James’s work in the world, and the most comprehensive collection of a fashion designer’s work of any museum.

After designing in his native London, and then Paris, James arrived in New York City in 1940.  Though he had no formal training, he is arguably one of the greatest designers to have worked in the tradition of the haute couture in America.  His fascination with complex cut and seaming led to the creation of key design elements that he updated throughout his career: wrap-over trousers, figure-eight skirts, body-hugging sheaths, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, and poufs.  These, along with his iconic ball gowns from the late 1940s and early 1950s — the "Clover Leaf," "Butterfly," "Tree," "Swan," and "Diamond" — are showcased in the exhibition.

The exhibition is organized by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder. The exhibition designers are Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York-based interdisciplinary design studio led by Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro that integrates architecture and the visual and performing arts.  The décor for the 2014 Costume Institute Gala Benefit was produced by Raul Avila for the eighth consecutive year.

A book, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder with a preface by Ralph Rucci and contributions by Costume Institute Conservators Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, accompanies the exhibition. This publication is illustrated with new photography of James designs, including details highlighting the materials, construction, and conservation of the pieces, as well as rarely seen vintage photographs from the designer’s archive. 

Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the $50 catalogue (hardcover only) has 264 pages and 330 color illustrations.  It is distributed by Yale University Press and available in early May.

Anna Wintour Costume Center May 2014 marks the opening of the Anna Wintour Costume Center space after an overall two-year renovation, reconfiguration, and updating. The 4,200-square-foot main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery features a flexible design that lends itself to frequent transformation, a zonal sound system, innovative projection technology, and wireless connectivity.

The Anna Wintour Costume Center also includes the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, which orients visitors to The Costume Institute’s exhibitions and holdings; a state-of-the-art costume conservation center; an expanded study/storage facility that houses the combined holdings of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection; and The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, one of the world’s foremost fashion libraries.

The project is funded by a $10 million gift from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, as well as proceeds raised at the annual Costume Institute Benefit under the leadership of Met Trustee Anna Wintour, and from commitments by Janet and Howard Kagan and the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc.  The Costume Institute was last refurbished in 1992.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), Ball Gown, 1949-50, Red silk velvet, red silk satin, white cotton organdy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954 (2009.300.2786), Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), Evening Dress, 1946, Black silk-rayon velvet, red silk satin, brown silk faille, black silk crepe, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954 (2009.300.795), Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), “Butterfly” Ball Gown, ca. 1955, Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Fund, 2013 (2013.591), Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), Evening Dress, 1948, Black silk satin and black silk velvet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, 1949 (2009.300.734), Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), “Taxi” Dress, ca. 1932, Black wool ribbed knit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Alan W. Kornberg Gift, 2013 (2013.309), Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis.

Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast.