The Great American Couturier

Published May 6, 2014

Yesterday morning, fashion’s elite, a carefully selected group of Hollywood legends, and a few high-achieving design students joined First Lady Michelle Obama to celebrate the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Costume Center.

Named after
Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the Costume Center’s inaugural exhibition, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” presents the work of the acerbic and begrudgingly loved Anglo-American design genius. Although the Met inherited a vast Charles James archive from the Brooklyn Museum in 2009, it was quality, not quantity, that piqued interest in showcasing the designer’s oeuvre.  

The Center’s curator-in-charge, Harold Koda, notes that “Beyond Fashion” is a particularly suitable launch for fashion as art: “there are many designers who do
some work that is art, but they’re commercial enterprises. Usually their designs have been diffused by the needs of the market.”

A couturier’s couturier, James never conformed to such pressures. It is known that many of his garments, with their technological feats and ingenious use of sturdy, yet supple, materials, could stand alone—absent of their wearers. As Salvador Dalí once remarked, “[James’ designs] are soft sculpture.”

Jan Glier Reeder, the consulting curator of “Beyond Fashion,” walked us through the exhibition spanning two large galleries—one exclusively for gowns; another for formal daywear and James’s various techniques including drapes and folds, wraps and spirals, anatomical cut, and platonic form. A small offshoot illuminates James’ biography with detailed lists of his processes and rosters of dream clients. All were acquired from James’ last assistant, Homer Layne.  

An inviting collage of images with illustrator Antonio Lopez, a close friend and collaborator once James severed ties with Halston (a former James protégé), hangs high.  Neither the clothes, the vintage portraits, nor the suggestive illustrations are to be missed. 

“CHARLES JAMES: BEYOND FASHION” IS ON VIEW AT THE ANNA WINTOUR COSTUME CENTER AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART MAY 8 THROUGH AUGUST 10.