Reconstructing James

WP_20140612_14_04_13i[Fashion & Haute couture // Sculpture // Architecture // Design // Geometry]

If at least one of the above strikes a chord, you will most certainly enjoy ”Charles  James: Beyond Fashion”, currently on show at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. That is, if you haven’t been there already, in which case you’ll recognise the entire combination that makes up one of the most acclaimed exhibitions of the year.

A retrospective featuring some of the most innovative designs that influenced and revolutionised the world of fashion, ”reshaped” the female figure and breathed a sense of luxurious elegance, finesse and structure to the word Couture. Presented in two locations within the Met, separated by a floor and quite some distance. In between them a long walk across the marvels of Greek and Roman section, European Sculpture and the breathtaking Egyptian Art collection, all of which are so inspiring one tends to get deliberately lost. But one look  at James’ masterfully constructed sculptures and you’ll want to go back for more; the museum’s map and omnipresent staff are there to help put wanderers back on the right track.


The exhibition begins on the first floor in a dimly lit room where James’ iconic ball gowns stand on single pedestals, highlighted by spot lights. In front of every dress there are robotic arms,  some with cameras, others with digital projectors.

The curators collaborated with designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), an interdisciplinary studio that integrates architecture, visual and performing arts, who created a system of video animated imagery that deconstructs, pieces together and reconstructs James’ garments. The whole procedure is projected, step-by-scrutinous-step, on screen, shedding bright light into the great designer’s craftmanship and technique.

A very impressive presentation which, far from taking away the magic, inspires renewed  admiration; because, as Harold Koda, the curator in charge said: ”Charles James was one of the few 20th century figures whose clothes can sustain this kind of microscopic scrutiny;  he was a real 360-degree designer”.

All around the ball gowns room, there seemed to be much chatter about the shape and weight of the garments:

– These were all such tiny people! Look at this tiny waist!

A great tribute to Charles James’ ingenious cut. He said so himself: ”My dresses help women discover figures the didn’t know they had”.

– Do you think she could walk in it?… – This dress must be heavy!

Indeed, James’ experimentation, manipulation and generous use of fabrics sometimes resulted in dresses weighing up to 20 pounds (or 9 kg)! His elegant ”Butterfly” silk gown of 1955, with its 25 yards of tulle and 18 pounds is one of the heavier structures, as is the famous ”Clover Leaf” ball gown of 1953, weighing ”just” 10 pounds. Despite their weight, the dresses not only allow free movement but, apparently, they also ”feel” light because of the clever, balanced placement of weight on strategic parts like the trapezius muscle that supports the arm, or the hips.

The exhibition continues on the ground floor with more evening wear, James’ fabulous coats and some ingeniously cut dresses, like the Taxi Dress, a black wool rib knit created around 1932 and was ”so easy to wear it could be slipped on in the backseat of a taxi”.



Photography is strictly not allowed sparking much discussion, protest, and repeated snappy no-nos from the staff. But, there is always the Met and other websites… and some brave, rebellious spirits like Jackie Mallon who, unwilling to take no for an answer, documented her visit and managed to emerge unscathed to share her experience. If you haven’t yet visited Jackie’s blog you could start right here. Hers is a beautiful world and you’ll soon be enthralled by  it.

For the less adventurous of us, there is still one room where snapshots are allowed; the gallery showcasing some of James’ drawings, pattern pieces, maquettes, accessories and notes. Equally fascinating, for if his garments reveal the true genius of the designer, these ephemera speak volumes about James the man.

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James’ feather fans (1935-50) in the form of birds’ wings were inspired by the Surrealist movement in the 1930s and became his signature evening accessory for the next fifteen years.


The birth of his son, Charles James Jr. in 1956, inspired a children’s collection. Designs included special seaming to allow for greater ease of movement. Princess Grace of Monaco snapped up a layette for her first child Caroline.The Baby Cape coat, that is displayed here prominently, was later translated into the ”Cocoon” coat for adults.



James’ ”Flexible Sculpture” ca. 1966 is visible on the left. In an effort to improve the fit of American ready-to-wear, James dissected the torso of his model into six pieces that could be moved to imitate different postures, ultimately resulting in better fitting garments.

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cj coll

One-of -a-kind evening jacket made by James in 1937, in response to the boxy fur jackets Schiaparelli and others were showing at the time. The predecessor of today’s puffer jackets.

Never one to shy away from expressing his opinions, some of which would have been downright vicious, James kept a couple of notes:


Here is one about artists that influenced his ”thinking”; fashion artists that influenced his work from the time he embarked on a career ”against his parents’ wishes”; illustrative designer-artists whom he abhorred; photographers he knew and admired; and photographers whom he felt ”unable to catch the essence of the fashionable”. Click on the image for full view – a most  interesting name list.



On this note, entitled ”Clients whom I would have liked to dress… sometimes could have but did not” there is a brilliant who-is-who and comments ranging from spot-on to hilarious, like:
”Maria CALLAS” Pure magic and imbued with grace. Her voice like the tone of a Stradivarius”… or
”Mick JAGGER” Sexy  bastard, can wear and/or make everything  and  everybody”.
Again, click on image for full view.





Sweet dreams are made of this… Ball gown, 1954. Emerald green silk satin. Only two were produced. One of them stole my heart.

”Brancusi has his medium; Picasso, Faulkner,  Shostakovich, theirs. Mine happens to be cloth”
Charles James

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York
Charles James: Beyond Fashion
Until 10th August 2014

Photographs by Konstantinos Implikian

Viewed on 12 June 2014





14 thoughts on “Reconstructing James

  1. Pingback: Views from the High Line | Lia in Brussels

  2. Oh you got some cracking shots despite the uniformed ball breaker! Very thorough and enjoyable all over again. Thanks for the shout out–see my comment to Dievca above…^

    • Hmm, either they were the strictest guards in all NYC or everyone just wanted to photograph the frocks… I heard this ”no photos please” repeated more times here than any other exhibition! Mentioning your endeavour was only a small token of appreciation 🙂

  3. Pingback: DS+R = The Look | Lia in Brussels

  4. Oh, I loved this post. Reminded me of the post about the Balenciaga Museum that I have in mind since… I don´t know when. One day. Congratulations for having visited such an exhibition.

    • Oh I had a great time. As you can imagine, I didn’t have eyes for anything else from the Met on that day… I had to return later to catch some of the other collections! You’ve been to the Balenciaga Museum?? Could we please PLEASE have this post asap? It’s urgent!

  5. Very nice Lia! When I talked about the show (“M and d, Viewing Beyond Fashion”) I borrowed the snapshots from the web — you did a gorgeous job taking the allowed photos! Well Done! Mine was the story of sharing the experience with a Partner, Jackie’s was the story of the Design and yours is the story of the Details. Fabulous!

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