The Sistine Chapel of Fashion Virtuosity

Clover Leaf Ball Gown – a 1953 silk faille, shantung, and black lace sculpture by Mr. James. Part of the Brooklyn Collection at The Met

Clover Leaf Ball Gown – a 1953 silk faille, shantung, and black lace sculpture by Mr. James. Part of the Brooklyn Collection at The Met

When the Brooklyn Museum handed its fashion archive over to the Met in January 2009, the first thought that crossed everyone’s mind was the mind-bending masterworks that would now be sheltered under the protective wing of the Costume Institute’s crack conservation team — “Oooh, maybe the Met will do a Charles James show!”

We’re glad to report that the Met has done this master proud and given his humble admirers a fitting place to worship in its triumphant two-gallery show, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, which ends this weekend, August 10.

1952 portrait by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine. Courtesy: The Met;  Library of Congress

1952 portrait by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine. Courtesy: The Met; Library of Congress

Mr. James is credited with being among the first to perfect the strapless gown in the 1930s, an inspiration for Mr. Dior’s “New Look” in the 1940s, and the epitome of Vogue glamour dressing in the 1950s. He could do things with fabric that others simply couldn’t do or wouldn’t dare…well, maybe except for Madame Gres. He pushed silhouettes and fabrics further than most anyone could conceive and had the temperamental nature, drive for perfection, and uncompromising attention to detail that characterize any of history’s greatest, most passionate artists.

You always look at his creations and ask yourself, “How did he do it?” How did he get a spiral of fabric to stand out as it wraps sinuously around a sleek, strapless electric green silk mermaid dress? Is that sexy Thirties frock actually cut from one scarf?  How did he create virtual moving sculptures from the world’s most expensive fabric?

Innovative digital display tells the back story of Mrs. Hearst’s Clover Leaf Gown – too big for Ike’s inaugural, but just right for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation

Innovative digital display tells the back story of Mrs. Hearst’s Clover Leaf Gown – too big for Ike’s inaugural, but just right for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation

Long known for his innovative engineering, the Met came to a brilliant solution to explain the magic that Mr. James wrought over his decades of no-two-alike work – hire an architectural firm to show us.

Enter Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who have mounted these sculptures in silk inside an infinity-room gallery and paired each masterpiece with its own personal robot and humongous iPad-type display. Look at the dress and refer to the screen as the dress digitally deconstructs and is assembled again.

Cecil Beaton’s 1955  photo of Nancy James in the Swan Gown. Courtesy: The Met; Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

Cecil Beaton’s 1955 photo of Nancy James in the Swan Gown. Courtesy: The Met; Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The crowds waft from dress to dress in no particular order, clustering silently to watch digital magic, see where the robot is pointing, and view photos of Mrs. Randolph Heart, Jr., Gypsy Rose Lee, or Josephine Abercrombie in said gown. The robot with the 1954 Swan Ball Gown captivates viewers by moving underneath to televise close-up views of some of the 1,080 square feet of tulle that Mr. James used to create the oomph.

The mirrored walls of the upstairs gallery and the see-through dividers downstairs are emblazoned with the wisdom of the man himself. He seems to be talking right to you as you wonder how he made the fabric do what it’s doing (“It’s the air that’s sculpted, not the silk”) or how he thought about the world of fashion (“We who have been ahead in style have usually been ahead in our thinking”).

Downstairs gallery, newly named for Ms. Wintour, filled with James creations

Downstairs gallery, newly named for Ms. Wintour, filled with James creations

The second gallery (welcome back, ground floor Costume Institute!) displays his wool creations and sharply shaped cocktail wear. It’s interesting that James considered some of these genuinely more innovative than his often-photographed gowns. The curators have placed another of his “first” in a room at the back – the predecessor of today’s puffer coat. On loan from the V&A, it remarkably dates from the 1930s – his soft, sensual, silky answer to the boxy fur jackets that Ms. Schiaparelli was showing in Europe at the time.

We have to thank Mr. James for his vision and for making sure the Brooklyn design lab had so many examples of his masterpieces to teach and inspire future generations of Seventh Avenue designers. As he says, “In fashion, even what seems most fragile must be built on cement.”  Lesson learned.

The Met’s a great steward. Just listen to the love in the tour of the show by its curators:

If you have more time, hear what Zac Posen has to say to the co-curator about The Master:

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