Monday, 12 May 2014

Rediscovering Charles James

I'm a museum nerd, just slightly.
Unfortunately, not to the extent that I have surreptitiously hosted birthday parties within the four walls of my favourite museum, but just enough to keep tabs on the exciting exhibitions around the world that I can't get to, thereby depressing me completely.

The one that initiated the recent bout of depression is Charles James: Beyond Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I discovered the exhibition through the media on this year's Met Gala, and was thrilled to see that appreciation of the beauty and skill of James' constructions is becoming mainstream again after so many years.

Though each dress is in keeping with the general styles of the era, at the same time each one is in a league of its own, standing out as a sculptural masterpiece.

One of the explanations for this is that James did not design to flatter his customers' figure. Rather than taking an imperfect body and using his skills to hide the flaws and emphasis the virtues, he would create an ideal, flattering shape with built-in corsets and bombast so that it was perfect, before draping it in fullsome layers of fabrics. This means that many of his later gowns could quite literally stand up on their own, some weighing as much as 50 pounds.

However the rigidity of the shell and underlying engineering was cocooned in soft drapery that gave the visual impression of complete weightlessness, gliding on air, provided the wearer herself had the grace and sophistication to carry it off.

*The delight in seeing Marisa Tomei wear an original Charles James to the 2011 Academy Awards was dulled by the lack of poise with which she wore the dress. In fact, I felt she made the dress appear almost lifeless, even when compared with a museum mannequin.

Unfortunately, James was not the most diplomatic of couturiers and was equally at home being charming or insulting and abusive towards the very women who were his clients. However for these women, the magic of wearing one of his dresses and achieving that memorable grand entrance into a ballroom made it all worthwhile. As Marc Jacobs said [James] understood human nature, how people want to adorn themselves and be spectacular.  

While James is known for his sculpted ball gowns and cocktail dresses, he is also renown for the fluidity of his early evening gowns and coats. Although still finely sculpted, his coats and jackets demonstrate a surprising softness through the cut of the shoulders or the way the heavy fabric has been allowed to hang before morphing into pleats and hems. Curving lapels were preferred to harsher rectilinear lines, while pockets and pleats are hidden into seams to address practicality and provide some flex and movement to the piece. 

Though Charles James has been appreciated by the fashion world for many years, and his few designs (he only designed about 1000 pieces over a 50 year career) were painted, and photographed  by the leading fashion photographers of the day, it is really only Cecil Beaton's photo below that seems to be recognisable to the general public. And even then they don't necessarily realise that the exquisite gowns are all Charles James. 

Hopefully this exhibition will correct that. 

*Most of the images of gowns are from the The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. 

1 comment:

  1. They are utterly divine. Utterly. I am depressed that you are not going to see it too :(

    Ooooooh, and it's me, it's ME who has surreptitious birthday parties in museums, I enjoyed that shout out ...


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