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The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Charles James: Beyond Fashion

Every year, the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents an exhibition dedicated to either a designer or a specific time period in fashion. Held between the months of May and August, the exhibition invites thousands of people from all over the world to take a look at the yearly thematic exhibition. This year, the institute will focus on legendary Anglo-American couturier Charles James with the exhibition “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.”

This year’s exhibition will focus on the many pieces by James during his years as one of the most illustrious couturiers during the 20th century. According to The Met’s official website, the exhibition will provide the audience with James’ “design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today.” 

Before becoming a couturier, James began his career as a hat maker in Chicago. The design process and technique that James developed from working as a milliner allowed him to evolve and become an exceptional couturier later in his life. According to Vogue.com, “his early training as a milliner would shape his approach to clothing design. Much as a hat maker uses a block, James viewed the female form as an armature on which to build his highly sculptural pieces.” Some of James’ notable designs include the “Four-Leaf Clover,” “Butterfly,” “Tree” and “Diamond,” all of which will be shown in the exhibition next month.

To elaborate on James’ design process and direction, Vogue described his designs as “mathematical tailoring combined with the flow of drapery.” Although his gowns would weigh a heavy amount — sometimes up to 18 pounds — it was important to James to ensure that his models would wear them with grace. One gown, for example, would be James’ legendary “Four-Leaf Clover” ball gown. According to Vogue.com, the gown “indeed resembled the lucky charm” when viewed from the top. To create the unique quatrefoil silhouette, James engineered a complex undercarriage of multiple petticoats, over which floated a skirt of cream duchesse-satin, its four structured “petals” emphasized by a wide undulating band of black velours de Lyon. The “Four-Leaf Clover” is one of many of James’ notable designs that combined both mathematical tailoring and drapery.

Notorious as a perfectionist, James was known to spend a large amount of money on one piece of his designs, such as a sleeve of a ball gown. However, such perfectionism made him known as an artist rather than a designer. Out of the thousands of gowns that James designed during his time, each one of his designs was considered to be a form of art.

Seventy-five of James’ designs will be featured in the exhibition in two separate locations, including the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Center and one of the special exhibition rooms on the first floor of the museum.

The Costume Institute was first formed in 1937 and was originally known as the Museum of Costume Art. According to The Met’s official website, “In 1946, with the financial support of the fashion industry, the Museum of Costume Art merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art as The Costume Institute, and in 1959 became a curatorial department.” In 1972, highly esteemed fashion editor Diana Vreeland became the Institute’s special consultant. During Vreeland’s 17 years of working for the institute, she produced a large number of distinguished and celebrated exhibitions, including “The World of Balenciaga” (1973), “American Woman of Style” (1975) and “Yves Saint Laurent: 25 years of Design” (1983), to name a few. Today, curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton helm the institute. Recent exhibitions produced by both Koda and Bolton include “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (2011) and “Punk: Chaos to Couture” (2013).

“Charles James: Beyond Fashion” will be on display at The Met May 8 through Aug. 10.