Current & Coming  |  By ANTIQUES Staff

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 •

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