Charles James - Beyond Fashion at Metropolitan Museum

“Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” a landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, proposes that this perennial question, which sprang up in the 1970s, was asked and answered in the late 1940s and ’50s. That’s when the Anglo-American couturier Charles James was at the height of his powers, making coats, suits, cocktail dresses and ball gowns, creating a sartorial inspiring similar to the vaunted abstract sublime of the Abstract Expressionist painters working at the same time.
“Charles James” returns the popular Costume Institute to the level of excellence most recently achieved by itsAlexander McQueen exhibition in 2011. The largest and most comprehensive retrospective of James’s work in this country, it reveals an artist as interested in visual spectacle and extremes as McQueen, but with a more classical, architectural mien and a more subtle sense of ostentation.
This outstanding show was organized by Harold Koda, the institute’s longtime curator in charge, in collaboration with the adjunct curator Jan Glier Reeder. It was designed by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro, which has accessorized its two main galleries with various forms of digital wizardry.
The exhibition comes in two parts. On the first floor, in the large special-exhibition galleries, 15 of James’s most extraordinary ball gowns form a tour de force of masterworks, while resembling a well-spaced grove of exotic trees. Downstairs, the show inaugurates the two gallery spaces in the institute’s renovated ground-floor quarters, which have been christened the Anna Wintour Costume Center.
James, who was born in England in 1906, began as a hat designer and settled permanently in the United States in 1939, building his art on the simplified lines and bias cuts of the early-20th-century French modernists Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet.
The ball gown gallery, where each dress is a feat of engineering, is one of the great demonstrations of how shape and color convey meaning and pleasure.

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