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Inside the Charles James: Beyond Fashion Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dress from the Charles James: Beyond Fashion Exhibit

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Having previewed "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art early this afternoon, it’s now crystal clear why Anna Wintour issued the dress code edict that all men wear white tie and tails to tonight’s Met Gala.

Last year, A-listers from New York, Hollywood, London and points beyond sported their punk-rock finest to go with an exhibit that examined that musical genre’s impact on fashion—the results on the red carpet were a mixed bag at best, so perhaps Wintour is in no mood for sartorial misunderstandings this year. "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" is a wonderfully sumptuous, detailed exploration of one of the 20th century’s great masters of architectural fashion, and the pieces sure to draw the most attention are the ball gowns he constructed between the 1940s and 50s, worn by women who would help define the term style icon: Babe Paley, Millicent Rogers, Austine Hearst and other James clients are well-represented here. With all that in mind, white tie and tails should feel not only right at home, but also wholly appropriate; we only have a few hours left to anticipate how the ladies—Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lawrence, Taylor Swift and Emmy Rossum, among them—will interpret the exhibit’s ultra-luxe leanings. (If I were going, my first call would have been to Zac Posen, a designer who lately seems heavily influenced by James in the construction of his ball gowns.) 

Dress from the Charles James: Beyond Fashion Exhibit

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Fold in the idea that this is the inaugural exhibit for the newly christened Anna Wintour Costume Center (a two-year renovation partially funded by a $10 million gift from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch) and make no mistake, the fashion industry is lining up to pays its collective respects. Prior to the press preview, Wintour hosted a VIP event attended by Stella McCartney, Met Gala co-chair Sarah Jessica Parker, Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg and Posen, as well as students from the High School of Fashion Industries and the Fashion Institute of Technology, all of whom gathered to watch First Lady Michelle Obama (wearing a lushly embroidered Naeem Khan dress in emerald) cut the ribbon to officially open the costume center. “I’m here today because of Anna, I’m here because I have such respect and admiration for this woman who I am proud to call my friend,” she said, before advising the students in the audience, “You’re here because we want you to dream bigger.” 

Indeed, the roughly 75 pieces in the exhibit should find favor not only with those who love fashion, but also those who wish to delve even deeper to discover the secrets in James’ passion for construction. In one room of the exhibit, co-curators Harold Koda and Jill Glier Reeder have arranged a fantastical array of James’ most iconic gowns, each on a circular stage, allowing museum-goers a 360-degree view of the intricate, exhaustive details. Instead of the standard title and provenance card, each gown is accompanied by a video, which starts out with its bio, but then you’re taken on a mini-tour of the gown’s construction via a video animation that illustrates how James realized its architecture. And while the video highlights a particularly artful detail—the curve of a seam or the drape on a skirt, for example—a light moves in sync around the gown to show you that same seam or drape. It’s both highly educational and technologically impressive, and a keen argument decidedly in the “yes” column in that endless “Is fashion art?” debate. 

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Ultimately there should be no debate that James, who passed away in 1978, was an artist who employed silks and satins to craft dresses that in many ways were sculptures in his endless exploration on how to most artfully grace the female form. “It’s very moving to see the clothes en masse, the way they’ve been arranged so there are thematic associations and you see how something he developed in the early 30s, he was still developing in the late 50s, and how he thought of his work as a constant work in progress,” said Hamish Bowles at this afternoon’s preview. “The process is very movingly evoked.” 

“Charles James: Beyond Fashion” opens to the public this Thursday, May 8, and runs through Sunday, August 10, in the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; click here for more information.

 

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