Caped crusaders, supermodels, punks, Prada … these are just a few of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute recent exhibition subjects. So visitors to the Met’s annual fashion show might be disappointed to discover there are no mannequins flipping the bird, Kate Moss holograms, or Batman suits on display this year. Instead, the Institute has decided to debut its newly renovated galleries with an old-school, no-frills retrospective on a little-known mid-century designer: Charles James.
But that doesn’t mean it’s boring. “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” which opens to the public Thursday, features 65 of the American couturier’s dazzling, sculptural works of art — ball gowns that are feats of mathematical engineering and imagination —and puts James back in the ranks of fashion’s greatest geniuses, among Balenciaga and Dior and Chanel.
James began his career as a milliner in 1926, designing custom hats for Chicago society ladies. Throughout the late ‘20s and ‘30s, he moved from New York to Paris to London, honing his dressmaking techniques, and developing the foundations that would serve as his signatures: the wrapover trouser skirt (kind of like a proto-skort, but way chicer), the Taxi dress (a spiral-cut garment that was like a proto-wrap dress), and the va-va-voom Sirene dress, the fabric ruched to evoke skeletal or reptilian forms. (The Met has examples of all.)
But it wasn’t until the late ‘40s and early ‘50s — after moving to New York City and hooking up with makeup mogul Elizabeth Arden, socialite Millicent Rogers, and burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, who would become his faithful clients — that James became a star, thanks to his virtuosic evening gowns. The exhibition’s cavernous main gallery includes 15 of them, each spot-lit and including its own projection screen with analytical animations, x-rays, and stories to show the garment’s construction. They’re nothing like your typical ball gowns. One 1948 number includes a pleated peach overskirt that opens to reveal the folds of an orange taffeta underskirt — as the Met puts it, “rather explicit libidinous allusion.” A strapless chiffon wiggle dress erupts into a mass of brown and purple tulle at its posterior. And then there’s the “Clover Dress,” with its undulating, four-lobed skirt in an abstract black and white pattern, weighing 10 pounds and widely considered James’ masterpiece; it’s breathtaking.
James shut down his workshop and showroom in 1958. He was difficult and depressed and uncompromising; he couldn’t keep up with the demands of the industry. By the time he died in 1978, he had a few private clients but was living in squalor and penniless at New York’s Chelsea Hotel. It’s about time for this genius — who Balenciaga once called the greatest couturier in the world — to get his due.