I suggest you run to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to catch Charles James: Beyond Fashion to witness the most innovative display of breathtaking dresses I have ever seen. Upon entering, one is confronted with a constellation of beautiful ball gowns floating in the dark. Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder have organized this stunning show, with design by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro. The architects employ technological feats of magic that pinpoint seams, zoom in on fabric texture, display x-ray images to reveal inner construction, and animate flat pieces of fabric that wondrously fall into the garment with breathtaking effect.
The erotic power of James’ work is fully felt (due in part to the dramatic lighting) and the dresses are in many ways sensual sculptures which protect, reveal, and imbue the wearer with a certain power. James’ work as a milliner is apparent as he clearly thinks in 3-dimensions as an architect does. His understanding of fabric, cut, and gravity are astounding and the man was clearly a genius. The way he cut fabric to create as few seams as possible for the most dramatic effect is spellbinding. His vast knowledge of fashion history is revealed in his clever use of previous silhouettes and shapes, often combining unrelated styles in a surprising way.
That Charles James was an incredibly well-read, culturally astute, detail-oriented, and forward-thinking is made clear in this exhibit. This is an artist who worked in fashion. I particularly enjoyed reading some typed pages James left for assistants, or wrote in preparation for a memoir. One page listed artist whom he respected and admired (Dali) and others whom he abhorred (Erte). Another listed celebrities he may have had the chance to dress but missed out and would still love to including Ava Gardner, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie. Another page had descriptions of dresses listing inspirations drawing on Vionnet, Schiaparelli, and Pioret, but also detailing how the patterns could be maintained and cut for mass-production at Bergdorf’s.
Charles James was idolized by Halston, and their careers hold many parallels. Halston also started as a milliner and was knows for innovative cuts and draping of fabric. After Halston became successful, he contacted James and presented a large retrospective of his work in 1969. The two men worked together on Halston’s 1970 collection and Halston likened their relationship to the manner in which Balenciaga helped Givenchy. The collection was panned, resulting in the evaporation of their professional and personal friendship. Apparently James was loathe to speak about Halston and very bitter after their collaboration.
The video below shows Halston introducing a Charles James exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1982. He obviously still greatly admired and respected James, even after his death: