Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Charles James at the Met

There's a spectacular exhibition about the designer Charles James at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I went to see it with my mother-in-law, daughter and niece and we all loved it.  The exhibition is divided between two galleries on two separate floors -- not ideal and a bit hard to find -- but that's a small detraction from an otherwise superbly executed exhibition.

James began his career as a milliner in Chicago and hats from his earlier days were on display.  It was said that he would mold the hats on his more courageous clients heads to ensure a personalized fit, with a brim that perfectly suited their face.

In the late 1940s and 50s, James made seemingly innumerable gowns, cocktail dresses, and elegant coats.  He was a master at sculpting and draping cloth in fascinating and compelling ways.  His patterning and construction technique was so unique that he kept muslin forms so others could learn from his designs.

As lovely as the muslins are, see how the patterns translated when used with finer materials:

(The lighting in most of the exhibition is very low; I altered the exposure so you might see more, but these colors aren't true.  The red is much deeper and richer.)

Part of the focus of the exhibition was to help viewers understand, to the extent a layperson can, the way the pattern pieces were sewn together.  All of the gowns in one of the galleries had a small camera-like light before it which highlighted sections of the dress.  Next to it, these sections simultaneously appeared on a flat screen.  The pieces were then animated so we could watch a virtual construction of the dress, from skirt to bodice.  It was fascinating.

Many of James' gowns have names, such as the Butterfly Dress and the Tree Dress.  I couldn't take notes in the darkness of the rooms so sadly, I can't share them with you accurately.  But suffice to say they added an element of delightful whimsy to the elegance.

Here is a storyboard of sketches and articles, gathered together for a planned autobiography (1958-64).  I'm in awe of the fluid lines of James' sketches and I found it fascinating to read who wore these works of art.

Though made more than a half century ago, the style of the dresses have withstood the test of time.  I can imagine this dress appearing in today's fashion magazines or on the red carpet.

Fashion students were sketching, staring, and taking notes in abundance in the smaller, brighter gallery. Though not a student nor someone who sews clothes, I too was looking closely and examining the garments as much as I could.  I was amazed at how James took predominantly geometrically shape pattern pieces and, with well placed seams, fashioned soft drapes and gorgeous lines. If time allows, I would like to go see this again so I can absorb a bit more.  I hope you'll find the opportunity to go see this fabulous exhibition, too.


Norma Schlager said...

I saw the exhibit a couple of weeks ago and absolutely loved it! Your review is fabulous.

Natalya Aikens said...

Sadly it looks like I won't make this exhibition... Thanks for the pictures!