If you haven’t been to the Met to catch “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” it’s time to go. The exhibit closes Aug. 10 — a mere two weeks away. Designer Charles James revolutionized the post-war fashion world by updating romantic silhouettes into modern statements. Influenced by the Avant-Garde, he borrowed the biomorphic lines of Surrealism and the dramatic energy of Abstract Expressionism to engineer sculptural looks with artful appearances. “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcases 65 looks of this influential American couturier.
“Beyond Fashion” is shown in 2 galleries—one gallery for ball gowns and the second for every day and evening wear in the newly renovated Costume Institute’s Anna Wintour Costume Center. The low-lit interiors with dramatic spotlights mirror the mid-century drama of his designs. A wire skeleton underneath the garment invisible to the eye dramatically displays James’s signature volume without a mannequin.
James’s mathematical plans brought abstract shapes to life as luscious materials were stitched together to create voluminous designs. Silk, velvet, tulle, faille, nylon, chiffon and for his everyday-wear wool and cashmere were combined for added effects of light, color and movement.
Screens placed throughout the galleries display 3D renderings showcasing the intricate engineering behind each design. His “Clover Leaf” gown (1953) is masterful in its appearance due to its complicated geometry—from the sweetheart bodice jets a voluminous skirt where pieces are draped to create a petticoat that mimics the four sided shape of a clover. This luscious gown of silk and velvet with a tulle underlay is romantic in its materials and modern in its gravity-defying silhouette.
Charles James’s allure comes to life through the clothing’s presence and the designer’s philosophy, which is included in quotes on glass walls bordering the designs. “We who have been ahead in style have usually been ahead in our thinking,” reflects from a mirrored wall onto his famous “Butterfly” gown (1955). With a tight ruched bodice and a fan-shaped tool train, this gown is a visual example of a designer whose mindset and career strove to push fashion forward.
*Note that this article differs from the print and online version.
“Charles James: Beyond Fashion” through August 10
Open 7 days a week, 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Suggested General Admission $25