Charles James, the 20th century master couturier, was not only a mathematician and sculptor in the fashion world, but legendary in his realm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents Charles James: Beyond Fashion from May 8 to August 10, 2014. The retrospective studies James’s process of design through his applications of scientific, mathematical and sculptural methods. The British creator’s legendary approach to fashion continues to inspire designers.
The designer began his foray in fashion as a hat maker in Chicago, where he formed his designs directly on the client’s head. His millinery training would become the foundation in his innovative approach to clothing design.
James had an uncanny way to regard the female shape, solely as the framework, on which to construct his sculptural works. He often reinforced the lavish gowns with a construction of millinery wire and buckram for grandiloquence.
Although his gowns weighed up to 18 pounds, Charles James’s methodical ability, made sure that the gown the wearer was dressed in, floated on air. He garnered a reputation as “fashion’s premier architect” for his extraordinary achievements.
A 1944 Vogue magazine article remarked that James’s forte was “mathematical tailoring combined with the flow of drapery.” In 1948, English fashion photographer, Cecil Beaton photographed a coterie of models for a Vogue magazine shoot. Within an 18th century drawing-room, models in elegantly coiffed hair, were draped in stunning gowns of taffeta, velvet, silk and satin. It was a symphonic palette of grays and blues with laced with blush-pinks, celadon, titian and lemony yellow; each model appeared as a singular sculptural study of texture and color. The dynamism between Beaton’s expert lighting and mastery of James’s creations was a marvel to behold. In 1997, Christian Dior described James’s creations in a fashion memoir as pure “poetry,” and it is said that James is credited with the inspiration of Dior’s New Look.
According to Thomas P. Campbell, the Metropolitan Museum of Art director, James thought of himself as an artist. He approached his work “with a sculpture’s eye and scientific logic.” He had a fascination with “complex cut and seaming” that guided him to fabricate crucial design elements that he continuously revised all through his fashion career. Examples of his figure-eight skirts, spiral-cut frocks, wrap-over trousers and body-hugging sheaths to name a few are on view.
For the Charles James retrospective, approximately 75 of James’s most noteworthy creations will be shown at two locations – the Anna Wintour Costume Center in the Tisch Gallery and on the first floor of the Met.
The Tisch Gallery will study archival sketches, fabric swatches, ephemera, pattern pieces, and incomplete designs from James’s Chelsea Hotel studio. The first-floor gallery will illuminate the grandeur and design of the designer’s gowns that were worn by women such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. The exhibit includes his Butterfly, Diamond and Four-Leaf Clover creations. The venues will show video animation, accompanied by the process and transformation of Charles James through the years.
The exhibit’s Beyond Fashion title is drawn from the name James had selected for the autobiography he never had a chance to pen. The retrospective, Charles James: Beyond Fashion shows how the legendary couturier was a visionary who shaped and reformed the female silhouette into a sculptural masterpiece.
By: Dawn Levesque