“Charles James: Beyond Fashion”

May 14, 2014, 7:56 AM EDT
The Clover Leaf ball gown (left) and Butterfly ball gown by Charles James.
(Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Clearly, the true genius of the couturier Charles James (1906–1978) was in architecture and pattern-making — and his ability to transform oddly-shaped pieces of flat fabric into fanciful, voluminous dresses.

In the dark, mirrored space of the Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — which opens today and conjures the feeling of being in a ballroom with the kind of clients that wore the dresses now hanging on mannequins — various technologies have been employed to help you understand exactly how a cloud-like skirt or lampshade hemline was constructed.

The Met hired architectural firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro to produce a sophisticated system of animated video imagery to virtually deconstruct — and reconstruct — many of the garments from their mannequins, illustrating with 3D-mapping how a flat piece of ingeniously-cut fabric fits around the hips, say, to form an elaborate bustle, or how paneling helps the famous “Clover leaf” dress to float off of the floor, or how boning creates a dome-shaped structure at the bottom of a gown.

Simultaneously, tiny cameras on robotic arms rove around actual garments, projecting details of a fabric, or a seam, or a gathering of tulle, on the same screen.

The experience is perhaps a bit more instructional than the Met’s previous summer fashion exhibitions — “Punk: Chaos to Couture” being the most recent one, in 2013 — but a welcome device given how James has been oft-misunderstood, not to mention nearly forgotten in recent years.

“James was an artist who just happened to work in the medium of fashion. And Diller Scofidio & Renfro transformed the curatorial process, helping us think about objects linked to technologies we would never have encountered on our own,” said Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute at The Met.

Jan Glier Reeder, consulting curator for the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Met, noted: “He really wanted people to understand his work.”

Apart from showcasing simply breathtaking works of fashion art, the exhibition does do a decent job of showing how James — one of those artists who called the iconic Chelsea Hotel home — thought about his garments and his clients. Mirrored panels and glass screens are peppered with the Anglo-American designer’s various witticisms and other quotable quotes, such as: “My structures… look as if the body were no more ambulatory than a mermaid’s yet permit large reckless movement,” summing up his perceptions of how women should look — sensuous and delicate — and how they typically act — frivolously.

Near some mannequins exhibiting some skillful Madame Grès-type draped dresses was another quip: “The Venus de Milo… would be most unfashionable unless she had a good dressmaker.”

Elsewhere, on a more serious note, he explains the deliberation and perfectionism he practiced and sought in his work. “All my seams have meaning — they emphasize something about the body,” he allegedly said, adding: “Cut in dress-making is like grammar in a language. A good design should be like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea at a time.”

But it is in a small room in the second section of the exhibition that some of the most valuable insight to the man is found: specifically a typed document in which he details “the fine artists who influenced my thinking” and acknowledges fashion was a career he embarked on in 1926 “against my parents’ wishes.” James expressed admiration for Jules Pascin, Salvador Dali, and Cecil Beaton, and had open disdain for other contemporaries, such as photographersHorst P. Horst and Richard Avedon — calling them “photographers whom I felt unable to catch the essence of the fashionable.” Ouch.

All in all, the exhibition feels delightfully intimate, although the layout is confusing: the two sections of the exhibition are not particularly close to each other and warrants meandering through classical statues back out through the main foyer and down some stairs, which caused confusion amongst many fashion insiders and members of the press at the preview earlier this week. Hopefully, it doesn’t detract other show-goers from discovering the total genius of one of 20th century fashion’s greatest architects.

Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” May 8-August 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

-- Michelle Tay