Last week, celebrities and fashionistas attended the Met Gala in New York. It is an event that has increased in popularity due to well placed celebrities, whose after party antics typically gain more coverage than the reason for the party itself. Most folks may not even know that the Gala is held as a massive fundraiser on the opening night for the annual Costume Institute exhibit. It was only during the Alexander McQueen exhibit, following his untimely death in 2010, that the general public became truly interested in designer retrospectives. Record-breaking crowds waited on record-breaking lines to see the comprehensive and wildly creative works of Mr. McQueen. Since the McQueen exhibit, the Met has tried to create the same frenzy with wonderful but far less impressive retrospectives on the likes of Elsa Schiapparelli & Prada, and the Punk movement. The Met may have outdone itself with it’s stunning presentation of American couturier Charles James.
The exhibit itself is spread amongst three of the museums sizable galleries, including the newly renovated and dedicated Anna Wintour Costume Institute space, on the lower level. The two main galleries differ only in the number of gowns each holds. The third shows the designers’ beginnings as a sculptor and milliner. The gowns themselves are of course works of art. But they are also feats of engineering, pattern making, and fabric manipulation.
The Met used invisible forms to display the garments. There were no heads, wigs, arms, or visible mannequin parts to distract from the dresses. They also used robotic cameras, laser pointers and 3D imagery to de-construct each garment, allowing the viewer to see the flat pattern of each intricate dress animate itself into the final gown. X-rays are used to show horsehair and boning beneath some gowns, and lasers point to different elements such as lapels and necklines while pictures of the Victorian gowns James was inspired by come up on the screen below. One robotic camera went fully underneath a massive ball gown, revealing layer upon layer of boldly colored tulle that only the wearer (or the wearer’s betrothed) would ever see. Because these gowns were mostly worn and photographed in ads or magazines in the late 40s to mid 1950s by socialites and celebrities of the day, those images were shared as well.
James was ahead of his time in so many ways – seeing how fit was affected by posture, he chose to sculpt a woman’s form as she walked, slightly hunched, in order to test his precise fit and construction on a more life-like posture. Some of the boning and placement of extra panels of fabric were utilized to “coax the flesh behind the arms so as not to ruin the gentle line of the back.” One particularly intricate and formal gown was worn both as a bridal gown AND in an ad for Sanitary Napkins. You have to love a couture designer who thought about back fat, menses, and slouching. Unlike the constricting, difficult to move, breath, and live in designs of the Victorian era that James was inspired by, these gowns were meant to be worn and moved in.
As much as he was inspired by history, one can’t help but notice James’ influence on later designers work, including Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress (James, Scarf Dress), Donna Karan’s cocoon coat (James, Dolman Coat), as well as Red Carpet regulars like Zac Posen & Dior. There is talk of new investors reviving the House of James due to the popularity of the exhibit, one can only hope his trademark construction techniques can be honored while being a viable business endeavor.
The attention to detail on each garment was not only awe-inspiring, but easily understood by the videos and 3D imagery. There were gasps at each of the gowns as people realized what they were seeing on the screen in front of each dress. Whether you find fashion to be frivolous, or shake your head at the shoddy construction of Fast Fashion, you will leave this exhibit with both an education of apparel construction AND hopefully a newfound respect for the art and beauty of clothing. Having ostensibly dragged my children, my friends, and occasionally my spouse to fashion exhibits as long as I can remember, this one isn’t for everyone. Unless, of course, you are a fashion student, a sewer, an engineer, an architect, a designer of any kind, a consumer, a techie, or a person who wears clothes. Run, don’t walk. It will take your breath away.