The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute will examine the career of the legendary twentieth-century Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906–1978). Charles James: Beyond Fashion will explore James’s design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today. Approximately one hundred of James’s most notable designs will be presented in two locations—The New Costume Institute as well as special exhibition galleries on the Museum’s first floor.
Balenciaga once described Charles James as “The greatest designer of them all”. The man that became an inspiration for many contemporary fashion designers, and gained fame for masterly draping fabrics directly on the body today could be considered as the couturier that fashion history forgot.Now there’s an upcoming exhibition to fill the void and reintroduce him and his great couture work to the public.
The first-floor special exhibition galleries will spotlight the glamour and resplendent architecture of James’s ball gowns from the 1930s through 1950s with an elegant tableau celebrating such renowned clients of his as Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil. The New Costume Institute’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will provide the technology and flexibility to dramatize James’s biography via archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his last studio in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel. The evolution and metamorphosis by James of specific designs over decades will also be shown. Video animations in both exhibition locations will illustrate how he created anatomically considered dresses that sculpted and reconfigured the female form.
After designing in his native London, and then Paris, James arrived in New York City in 1940. Though he had no formal training, he is now regarded as one of the greatest designers in America to have worked in the tradition of the Haute Couture. His fascination with complex cut and seaming led to the creation of key design elements that he updated throughout his career: wrap-over trousers, figure-eight skirts, body-hugging sheaths, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, and poufs. These, along with his iconic ball gowns from the late 1940s and early 1950s—the “Four-Leaf Clover,” “Butterfly,” “Tree,” “Swan,” and “Diamond”—will be showcased in the exhibition.
(His “Butterfly” dress -featuring a tight fitted bodice with an enormous skirt that formed huge tulle wings -almost twenty five yards of tulle were employed for this design).
(Another iconic dress,that was originally commissioned to James by Augustine Hearst, wife of William Randolph Hearts Jr, for the Eisenhower Inaugural Ball in 1953.)
(The design was based on a reworked lobed hemline from the ’30s combined with a quatrefoil millinery model from 1948. He then produced a gown of four layers and an inner taffeta slip, a structured petticoat, a petticoat flare and an overdress.)
(The exhibition is made possible by AERIN./Additional support is provided by Condé Nast.)