Charles James Beyond Fashion Exhibition

“The best design reveals itself during a long fatiguing process of digging into the subconscious.” Charles James


Although Charles James never formally trained as a designer, he was a master of innovation. His ball gowns, his dresses and his coats stand apart as sculptural forms, with innovative seaming and sculptural techniques that seem to defy gravity. Unlike most garments that only come to life with a body inside, James created gowns that seem to have a life of their own with lavish folds, draping and seaming as well as inner structures of horsehair, padding, boning and/or layering. He also adopted innovative cuts that draped garments to highlight a woman’s body, such as the Taxi dress, which spirals seamlessly around the body and closes with three clasps at the hip, or the Coq Noir dress which is austere and elegant from the front but luscious and sensual with a swag of fabric to create a bustle back.

At the newly opened exhibit “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two galleries feature some of the most spectacular creations of this relatively unknown designer. Amongst fashion historians and curators, Charles James has long been acknowledged for his sculptural creations, but most people would not have recognized the designer’s name before the Met announced that he would be the subject of this exhibit.

Although heralded by Christian Dior as “the greatest talent of my generation,” Charles James went out of business in 1958 and died in obscurity and poverty in 1978. Known to be difficult and contrary, he seemed to care little about the money side of things or even whether or not he made his customers happy. He famously turned away women he found too frumpy for his designs and often failed to deliver gowns in time for the events for which they were commissioned. He alienated many of his friends including Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland. He was a loner, addicted to the act of creation. He once said: “A great designer does not seek acceptance. He challenges popularity, and by the force of his convictions renders popular in the end what the public hates at first sight.”

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The exhibit at the Met is comprised of approximately 75 pieces of the designer’s work as well as sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his last studio. The exhibit is spread across two galleries on the opposite side of the museum:  the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Center in the basement as well as the special exhibition galleries on the Museum’s first floor.

Curated by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, the exhibit is neither thematic nor chronological, and the organizing premise of the exhibit seems to be about the technical brilliance of his creations. The ball gowns are displayed on the first floor gallery on the south end of the museum and the coats, suits, other evening wear and ephemera are displayed in the basement gallery on the north end of the museum.


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This separation of the exhibit into two parts creates a bit of a challenge to navigate or appreciate with continuity.

What really makes the exhibit come alive is the use of technology, in particular the use of animation to deconstruct the garments into separate pattern pieces. This manipulation of the pattern pieces clearly illustrates how a flat piece of fabric becomes a three-dimensional form. These are not just beautiful gowns or sculptures of fabric; they are unique in their construction, but in a way that is not readily evident without close examination.

I overheard several complaints that the videos were too long and I even heard one reporter say that they resented having to look down at the screens. Appreciating a masterwork, whether it is a painting or a fabric sculpture, requires effort and it takes an investment of time to appreciate the simulation of how each gown was constructed. The use of this technology allows one to dissect the work and appreciate the complexity of construction without subjecting the gown to handling. Such information can be shared long after the exhibit is gone, helping to preserve these incredible dress sculptures. For some, including those more interested in the glamour of fashion than in the methods, these animations might seem tedious. There are also cameras that move in and around the gowns offering close ups of the seams, the details and the backs that would not otherwise be visible in the exhibit. These images are shown larger than life size on nearby screens.

James favoured a sophisticated palette of neutrals and pastels and the details of the many black and brown gowns are difficult to see in the dark galleries. The galleries are so dim that the disembodied gowns take on an uncanny presence.

Although conservation standards recommend low levels of light to help preserve the garments, these galleries are so dark that one journalist suggested that it ruined the show for her.


Being used to low light levels for fashion exhibitions, it did not particularly bother me, but I see her point, especially in comparison to the brightly lit galleries in the recent exhibit Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade 1500-1800 show at the Met last winter (September 2013 – January 2014).

Charles James had a vision for his work that belied commercial or practical concerns. He seemed to be driven to create sculptural forms and beauty as he saw it, regardless of what others were doing. Of course, this is not the recipe for financial success, but he was true to his vision as an artist of fashion. He once said: “There is no shortcut to creation. There may also be no profit in it.”

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For students of fashion, there is much to be learned by spending time in this exhibit. Not only are the designs of Charles James unique in their sculptural form, the work of deconstructing their creation has been done by animation. Seeing how James created his pattern pieces allows an appreciation of his unconventional approach to design. His use of techniques such as draping to avoid bust darts, sloping of the waistline to elongate and narrow the waist, offer innovative ways to sculpt the female form.

Some artists are famous in their lifetime, others like Van Gogh, are better appreciated after they are no longer with us. Although some might argue that Charles James cannot be an artist because his choice of material was cloth instead of marble or canvas, his vision of beauty, his use of sculptural forms, and his innovative creations, speak to the métier of an artist.  James said “Brancusi has his medium; Picasso, Faulkner, Shostakovich, theirs. Mine happens to be cloth.”

Charles James: Beyond Fashion

Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 8 – August 10, 2014

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Written by Ingrid Mida

Ingrid Mida

Ingrid Mida is the Collection Co-ordinator of the Fashion Research Centre at the Ryerson University School of Fashion where she is responsible for the curatorial and management duties related to the research collection. As well, she is a freelance fashion writer, focusing on fashion in the museum. Since 2008, she has written a scholarly blog called Fashion is my Muse, where she also explores the intersection of fashion with art, history, books, creativity, theory and life. As well, Ingrid works as a freelance artist and curator, creating artwork and installations related to fashion, and has had her photographs and illustrations included in several newspapers and magazines. Ingrid is currently working on a book for Bloomsbury Fashion called “The Dress Detective: The Practical Guide to Object-based research in Fashion” for release in Fall 2015.

Ingrid Mida
Ryerson University School of Fashion
350 Victoria Street
Toronto, Ontario M5B 2K3