Charles James Exhibition at MET on 2014!

Image caption: Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton /Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast
Charles James Exhibition and New Costume Institute Galleries to Open in May 2014 at Metropolitan Museum
May 8–August 10, 2014

Exhibition Overview

The retrospective exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, will feature approximately 100 of the most notable designs produced by James over the course of his career, from 1929 until his death in 1978. The first-floor special exhibition galleries will spotlight the glamour and resplendent architecture of James’s ball gowns from the 1930s through 1950s with an elegant tableau celebrating such renowned clients of his as Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil. 

The New Costume Institute’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will provide the technology and flexibility to dramatize James’ biography via archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his last studio in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel. The evolution and metamorphosis by James of specific designs over decades will also be shown. Video animations in both exhibition locations will illustrate how he created anatomically considered dresses that sculpted and reconfigured the female form. 

“James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression,” said Jan Glier Reeder, Consulting Curator in The Costume Institute, who is organizing the exhibition with Harold Koda. “In fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘...his work went beyond fashion and was a fine art.’” Beyond Fashion was also the title James chose for the autobiography he never wrote. 

James was so keen to ensure his legacy by preserving the "corpus" of his work in one institution that he persuaded important clients to donate his designs to the Brooklyn Museum. The transfer of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection to the Metropolitan Museum in 2009 augmented the Met’s Charles James holdings, and with recent acquisitions of early designs and archives, the Museum now has the most definitive body of James’s work in the world, and the most comprehensive collection of a fashion designer’s work of any museum. 

After designing in his native London, and then Paris, James arrived in New York City in 1940. Though he had no formal training, he is now regarded as one of the greatest designers in America to have worked in the tradition of the haute couture. His fascination with complex cut and seaming led to the creation of key design elements that he updated throughout his career: wrap-over trousers, figure-eight skirts, body-hugging sheaths, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, and poufs. These, along with his iconic ball gowns from the late 1940s and early 1950s–the "Four-Leaf Clover," "Butterfly," "Tree," "Swan," and "Diamond"–will be showcased in the exhibition. 

A catalogue by Harold Koda and Jan Reeder will accompany the exhibition. It will be published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, and will be available in early May.

The New Costume Institute

May 2014 will mark the grand reopening of The Costume Institute space after an overall two-year renovation, reconfiguration, and updating. The 4,200-square-foot Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will represent a fundamental change in the Museum’s approach to its costume collection, including a flexible design that lends itself to frequent transformation, a zonal sound system, innovative projection technology, wireless connectivity, and exhibitions on view 10 months a year. 

The New Costume Institute will also include: the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, which will orient visitors to The Costume Institute’s exhibitions and holdings; a state-of-the-art costume conservation center; an expanded study/storage facility that will house the combined holdings of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection; and The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, one of the world’s foremost fashion libraries. The project is funded by a gift from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, as well as proceeds raised at the annual Costume Institute Benefit under the leadership of Anna Wintour, and from commitments by Janet and Howard Kagan and the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc. The Costume Institute was last refurbished in 1992. 

(Press note by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, September 4, 2013)

Fernanda Quiros


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