Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) was America’s first couturier, creating astonishing clothes out of things like cellophane and billiard cloth, but he has remained mostly unknown to the general public.
The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute examines the career of legendary twentieth-century Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906–1978), and is presented in two locations—special exhibition gallerieson the Museum’s first floor and The Costume Institute’s Anna Wintour Costume Center on the ground floor. It explores James’s design process, specifically his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today. The retrospective features approximately sixty-five of the most notable designs James produced over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978.
Charles James with Model, 1948. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast
Consulting Curator for the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jan Glier Reeder, has researched his past for a new book and claims that James, who died in 1978 aged 72, really was ‘beyond fashion’. She says: “He was an artist and a creative being who chose working with cloth as his main medium of expression”.
Charles was idiosyncratic in his approach, and there was a genius there; a creative genius that everyone who knew him noticed. Innumerable people used that term about him and – though he loved creating myths about himself – it was the one thing that I don’t think he made up.
Charles James “Butterfly” Gown, 1954. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio
The first-floor special exhibition galleries spotlight and analyze the resplendent glamour and breathtaking architecture of James’s ball gowns. On view are fifteen dramatically lit, iconic James gowns including the “Clover Leaf,” “Butterfly,” “Tree,” and “Swan” from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Analytical animations, text, x-rays, and vintage images tell the story of each gown’s intricate construction and history.
Austine Hearst in Charles James “Four Leaf Clover” Gown, 1953
James was never constricted by the normal dressmaking conventions, theories, or techniques, which led to his use – among other things – of unusual textiles. James also designed evening wraps using the felt used for pool tables and millinery grosgrain. The grosgrain was a narrow material, 18 inches wide, used exclusively for making and supporting the foundations of hats. He had conveyed the range of techniques that he used – such as spiraling, draping, sculpting, and folding. James’s fascination with the human anatomy was a continuous theme throughout his work, along with four constant concerns: fit, movement, eroticism, and sound structure.
Ball Gown, 1949–50. Red silk velvet, red silk satin, white cotton organdy. Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954
The Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James’s craft. A pathway winds around a cruciform platform where the evolution and metamorphosis of James’s day and evening wear are explored in four categories: Spirals & Wraps, Drapes & Folds, Platonic Form, and Anatomical Cut. Video animations focused on the most representative examples of his approach are shown on monitors, and live-feed cameras detailing the backs of garments are projected on the walls. The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery displays ephemera from James’s life and work, including drawings, pattern pieces, dress forms, jewelry maquettes, scrapbooks, and accessories.
Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching. He dreamt that his lifetime of personal creative evolution and the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students. In our renovated galleries, we will fulfill his goal and illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math, and science.