'Charles James: Beyond Fashion' at the Metropolitan Museum

The new Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum kicks off its first exhibit with a collection of Charles James gowns and more. 
-PJ Gach

 Charles james 1The Metropolitan Museum of Art costume institute has a new name, it’s the Anna Wintour Costume Center. This morning Michelle Obama gave a speech to open the Charles James exhibit whilst designers and luminaries like Ralph LaurenDonna KaranIris ApfelSarah Jessica ParkerVera Wang and F.I.T students sat in the audience. Me? Because my phone malfunctioned earlier in the day, fashion illustratorBrooke Hagel and I were stuck outside. Argh. We were allowed in later.

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Charles james 5Who is, who was Charles James? Why did Anna Wintour and the Met decide to kick off her costume center with an exhibit of his work? He was a Brit (1906-978) who moved to New York City in 1940. America adopted him and he became known as “America’s first Couturier.” He was a brilliant designer, completely self-taught, who used mathematics (see, math comes in handy) to create arresting shapes and complex folds in his dresses and coats. Although he was brilliant, I learned on the line this morning, the his business ended badly, and he died destitute. There’s a wonderful article in The New Yorker about him if you want to read it.

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 Charles james 7About the exhibit: His gowns, coats, daywear, accessories, sketches, dress forms and accessories are presented in three rooms.

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Charles james mood board


Two of the rooms have black walls and dim lighting. What I want to know is who came up with the brilliant idea to place black, dark gray and even nile green items in a black-walled room, then turn the lights down low. It is like looking at a drop of ink in the middle of a black puddle. The genius who came up with this was, I think more interested in creating a mood, then allowing someone to view the items. If you go, you may want to smuggle in a flashlight so you can see in the rooms that resemble the inner depths of a coal mine.

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Charles james gown black gold 2 ways

Charles james gown two ways

Charles james quilted jacket

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James’s imagination created unbelievably complicated, breathtaking (more ways than one)and unique designs. Some seem to echo the aesthetics of Bauhaus, some are reminiscent (very slightly) of Adrian. All are incredible feats of mysterious magic that can only be created by a master of cloth.

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The exhibit runs until August 10, at the Metropolitan Museum of New York City. Don’t forget  your penlight.


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