There are a few reasons why The newest Costume Institute exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a Big Deal. The Shophound got a preview of the show yesterday, and anyone who has been nonplussed by some of the thematic extravaganzas the Museum has presented over the past few years might be surprised and will probably be pleased by the focused, streamlined and, yes, even scholarly show that opens to the public on Friday. The show is not without its own flash, but this time it takes the form of illuminating high-tech displays that take you literally inside the garments.
Last night's celebrity laden Gala was extra momentous because it also celebrated the debut of the Costume Institute's newly renovated facilities and galleries now renamed The Anna Wintour Costume Center after the Vogue EIC and Condé Nast Artistic Director. While there has been no end of press commentary about the honor given to one of the Museum's most effective fundraisers, the results of the renovation are a success. The Costume galleries —still downstairs, through Ancient Egypt— have shed their serpentine configuration for a larger, more open room allowing for more flexibility in exhibition design. This is where our preview started, with a section of the show features multiple examples of James' less dramatic but no less technically accomplished coats, day clothes and shorter cocktail dresses. It's a fairly traditionally styled display (see it in the gallery below), until you notice that several pieces are accompanied by 3-dimensional animated computer schematics that take the designer's patterns and show how they have been be manipulated into the often deceptively simple garments on display, unveiling James' intricate construction techniques. It turns out that this is actually a show for fashion nerds who are every bit as interested in how things are made as who wore them and how glamorous they looked, even if his regular clients included luminaries like Babe Paley, Gypsy Rose Lee, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Millicent Rogers and more. Interestingly, a smaller gallery contains selections from James' archives including sketches, notes, scrapbooks and other memorabilia including a typed list entitled, “CLIENTS WHOM I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO DRESS...SOMETIMES COULD HAVE BUT DID NOT” which included pointed commentaries on various personages. What a pity that Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Maria Callas and Greta Garbo missed out on being dressed by James. It certainly might have rescued him from the obscurity he fell into toward the end of his life if he had a little bit more celebrity appeal. By the same token, one wonders what he might have dreamed up if he had the opportunity to work with David Bowie, Gertrude Stein and Mick Jagger.
The section downstairs prepares us for what is more likely to be the beginning of the exhibition for most visitors. The show's main flaw is that it is separated into two, unfortunately far-flung sections. The next part is clear across the museum on the main floor in the Special Exhibition Galleries. Traveling is an annoyance, but it's worth the excursion to see the meat of the exhibition, an amazing collection of the dramatic ball gowns that Charles James is known for —at least by those who know him at all. Again, restraint, serves the show well here. Instead of trying to recreate the famous Cecil Beaton photo that has become the show's poster, the gowns are placed far apart on large, circular platforms and spot-lit in a darkened room devoid of decor except for mirrored walls printed with quotes from James (pictured above). The stark tableau is impressive enough, but get closer to each garment and discover each one paired with its own video screen that scrolls from a detailed description of the particular gown style and possibly its original owner to more computer renderings and X-ray images paired with projections on to the dresses themselves revealing the inner structures that add lightness to shapes that one would think should be cumbersome. Never has a Costume Institute show used technology to such an arresting effect. Charles James: Beyond Fashion may not have the glitz appeal of Punk or Superheroes, or the timely, elegiac overtones of the Alexander McQueen exhibition, but it shows that the Costume Institute can get serious and scholarly without getting boring.
Charles James: Beyond Fashion from May 8 through August 10 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, Upper East Side