Current and coming: Charles James at the Met
May 6, 2014 | The subtitle of the Met's Charles James exhibition, "Beyond Fashion," is suitably vague, hinting at an exalted realm where even the most extravagant fashion superlatives will be inadequate. Then, too, the phrase is meant to suggest that what lies beyond fashion must inevitably be art. Certainly James's designs have been so described almost from his first decade as a couturier in the 1930s: "Charles James is...the world's best and only dressmaker who has raised it from an applied art form to a pure art form," no less a personage than Cristóbal Balenciaga declared in a compliment that has become more or less routine.
Evening dress in black silk-rayon velvet, red silk satin, brown silk faille, and black silk crepe by James, 1946. © Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Arturo and Paul Peratto-Ramos.
The Met will display some seventy-five of the master's designs, all instantly recognizable for their dramatic joining of romantic line to a subtle but nonetheless rigid military structure (James was the son of a British military officer and an American socialite). The mystery of their complicated construction still fascinates admirers, and the exhibition promises to unwrap some of James's techniques-for instance the ways in which he coaxed rigid structural materials such as horsehair, wire, and buckram into the dazzling rustle and flow of his ball gowns.
Just how a young man with no training in the art of the couturier arrived at a style and method so complex and distinctively his is another of the mysteries of Charles James. His fashions are rarefied confections created specifically for one or another of the women who were his muses (Babe Paley, Dominique de Menil, Gypsy Rose Lee, to name a few), but they also exert a vast and breathtaking appeal to a great many of us out there whose figures may be something less than Greek.
Charles James: Beyond Fashion • Metropolitan Museum of Art• May 8 to August 10 • metmuseum.org