Charles James: Beyond Fashion at The Met – Jo Bayley Reports

As you might have all guessed by now I LOVE FASHION!

Thinking about it, I tried to pinpoint a favourite designer, but I don’t think I favour one in particular.

There are some whose aesthetic I don’t quite understand but can appreciate, and others who I immediately “get”.

Then, there is pure genius and beauty that transcends fashion and fabric, pieces become superb sculptures that, through merely being worn, come alive.

These pieces awaken the senses, and to me have enormous emotion. If you love fashion too, I challenge you not to be moved by this grandeur. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Charles James – Beyond Fashion, arguably the couturiers’ couturier.

This year 2014, The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York is displaying the works of this fashion enigma.

From May 8th till August 10th 2014, the public can gain a unique insight into James’ work, and who wouldn’t love to get that chance.

Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

After all this is the man that Christian Dior is said to have credited with having inspired his “New Look” which is still one of THE most cloned styles in fashion.

In the Special Exhibitions Hall on the 1st floor of The Met, the spotlight is on the glamour and architecture of his distinguishable ball gowns from the 1940’s and 50’s.

Costumes in the Charles James Beyond Fashion show at The Met New York

While in the newly opened “Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery” located in the “Anna Wintour Costume Centre” its all about archival pieces, including pattern pieces, sketches, swatches and partially completed pieces from his last studio in New Yorks infamous Chelsea Hotel.

Located on West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue in NY’s Chelsea district, James resided at the Chelsea from 1964 until his death from pneumonia in 1978.

As Cristo`bal Balenciaga said “James is not only America’s greatest couturier. He is simply the worlds best.”

Nancy James in Charles James Swan Gown 1955, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

“Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching” said Harold Koda curator in charge of the Costume Institute.

Approximately 75 pieces in two locations are on show.

Charles James, 1936 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photeograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

Charles James was born in Sandhurst, England in 1906 to an English father and American mother.

He was sent to Chicago, USA by his family to start a corporate career, which obviously didn’t suit his creative side, and in 1926 aged 19, he became a milliner under the name of Charles Boucheron.

He returned to London in 1929, where he began to establish ties with prominent society figures in both London and Paris. He worked in Paris under the patronage of Paul Poiret in 1934 and 1935, designing fabrics for French textile company Colcombet.

James then returned to New York City in 1939, and after briefly working for Elizabeth Arden, whose showroom he designed, he went on to open a workroom and salon at 699 Madison Avenue.

It was here that influential and extremely adventurous dressers such as heiress Millicent Rogers, art patron Dominique de Menil, Austine McDonnell Hearst, wife of William Randolph Hearst Jr and Gypsy Rose Lee became champions of this perfectionist with a difficult artistic temperament. Society clothes horses Babe Paley and Slim Keith were also fans. These women were doyennes of dresses, looked upon as the leading ladies of haute couture.

"Diamond" evening dress, 1957 Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) Silk: ivory satin: mushroom gros de londres; black velvet Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jean de Menil, 1959

Charles James had no formal training and produced fewer than 1000 garments over a 40 year career.

He ignored seasons and trends, and his work transcends time.

In fact so timeless, that his 1932 culottes for Lord & Taylor department store were still being sold in the 1950’s.

You can even see his influence in modern day dresses.

Take the “Diamond” that can be viewed in this exhibition as an example.

Constructed in 1957, this is perfection on the female form which James used as his point of reference.

The line and form are unparalleled, in what seems an ordinary shape.

Look closer and the devil is in the detail, as is with all Charles James designs.

Think of todays colour block dresses, the optical illusion of creating a sublime shape for the body.

He was forging this idea years before todays designers.

Not only did he create ethereal gowns but faultless coats and suits, spiral zipped dresses and futuristic white satin “puffer” jackets were incredible too.

Theater suit, 1951 Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) Copper silk satin, black wool cashmere Gift of Eleanor Searle Whitney McCollum, 1975

I adore the “Theatre Suit” made from black wool cashmere and copper satin.

This would translate for 2014 just as elegantly as it did in 1951, and what a dream to wear.

The suit is a tour de force of a cashmere face articulated by the rust-orange satin trim that curls around like an autumn leaf that has fallen to the ground.

He designed this at a time when he was exploring shapes for collars in suits and blouses, inspired by soaring modern architecture in Manhattan.

He even turned his hand to a children’s line, apparently HRH Princess Grace of Monaco ordered 18 items for her first born daughter Princess Caroline.

Construction was paramount to his pieces, as was his love of nature.

The Swan (1951), as graceful as the creature it is named for.

Think of the delicate but strong neck and picture the bodice of this gown, now move along to the bustle and imagine the body of the bird as it glides across the water.

The Butterfly (1955), a delicate insect whose velvet like wings change with the light. James managed this through layering of grey, aubergine, lavender, oyster and white tulles, a gossamer collection to showcase the intricacies of nature.

The Tree (1955), whose form reflects layers of bark, bringing the eye down to the root system, the strength of the plant.

"Four-Leaf Clover" ball gown, 1953 Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) Silk: Ivory Duchesse satin; ivory faille; black velvet (velours de Lyon); synthetic: nylon mesh Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953

And finally the Four Leaf Clover (1953) which in his opinion was the pinnacle of his work, has an amazing bodice moving down to the skirt, which if I imagine was photographed from above, would be a flawless specimen of the lucky shamrock.

These gorgeous gowns as instantly recognisable as the object they are named after, took months, even years to complete.

James would notoriously remake and remodel until he felt he reached purity in his design.

Charles James was mathematical, architectural and sculptural.

His ballgowns are like puff pastry, layer, upon layer, upon layer.

His suiting, an exercise in impeccable restraint.

As with many a genius, he died virtually penniless, owing six months rent to the Hotel Chelsea, but it has been documented James was a very generous teacher at the end of his life.

His powers of persuasion were so great, he swayed his most important clients to donate, and purchase, significant designs representing what he called the “corpus”of his works to the Brooklyn Museum.

Ball gown, 1954 Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) Emerald green silk satin Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Jean de Menil, 1955

This is now a part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York costume collection, and because of this we can experience his powerhouse of design.

When I first came across the designs of Charles James it was on Pinterest of all places.

I can still remember being absolutely floored at the meticulous frock in the photo.

From then, on I was hooked.

I urge anyone whether you are interested in clothes or not, to partake in this once in a lifetime exhibition.

You will be fascinated by technique and overcome by the beauty that is Charles James.

I know if I get the chance to go to New York in the next 3 months, I will be visiting this exhibition more than once, and I know I will be breathless at its apotheosis of haute couture.

Charles James truly was “Beyond Fashion”.

Jo Bayley, Fashion Editor, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Charles James: Beyond Fashion
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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