Go Beyond Fashion – an education

Although I spent the majority of the time feeling sick, I recently enjoyed a trip to NYC. Whilst my design studio has been packed up and moved (more on that another time) I took the opportunity to get away.

I often do blog entries about upcoming exhibitions and current galleries to visit. One of these I listed was the Charles James:Beyond Fashion exhibition at the Met Museum in NYC. As I was in NYC I thought I really must go and see it. I must admit that the only knowledge I had of Charles James’ work was his ball gowns in Cecil Beaton’s photographs (like the one below).

Charles James exhibition

But it turns out that Charles James is a designer I should have known more about. A very interesting designer and creative man. I was left feeling a bit guilty that he is not so well known as Dior and Chanel. Christian Dior called Charles James “the greatest talent of my generation” and his work was admired by other designers such as Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel, and Cristóbal Balenciaga.
He is basically the first American Haute Couturier (almost Haute Couture – see this blog for a great description of the true meaning of Haute Couture – the mis-use of the words is one of my pet hates).
Back to the exhibition and how absolutely fabulous it was.
There are two parts to this exhibit. The first one you see the actual toiles in calico and a range of ball gowns. Charles James actually had the foresight to save his toiles for future designers/students to see. This in itself was very interesting for me and I would have loved to see more of these. It would have been amazing to have been able to see these more closely.
Then you go into a huge room. This room has low circular stands and on each circle stood a ball gown. This simple idea was exactly what I want in every fashion exhibition. To be able to walk around each ball gown 360 degrees, see the fastenings, see the back details and the front details. It is perfect.
The curators Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder should then get an extra star for the idea of the cameras. Each ball gown had a camera next to it which showed an x-ray of part of the garment on a screen next to it. The screen also showed an outline of the garment and peeled away each panel of the dress to show how it was constructed. For the work of Charles James this was particularly important as each dress was very architectural and creatively constructed. On the face of it a dress might have seemed chic and simple but underneath to create the desired shape the dress was cut, layered and structured in all sorts of ways.
The exhibit unveils amazing facts about the pieces. For instance the Swan Ballgown (1954) was made from 1058 square feet (100 square metres) of tulle. The skirt consists of 6 layers and the dress weighs 12 pounds / 5.44 kg). See the image below of the “Swan” and if you head to the Met website here you can see the original pattern pieces for the Swan Ballgown.

"Swan" Ball Gown by Charles James at Met Museum
“Swan” Ball Gown by Charles James at Met Museum
The second room which is in a completely separate part of the museum focused on Charles James dresses, suits and coats. This is the new fashion exhibition space: The Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery. Charles James was still very creative with the clothing patterns and construction. I would have loved for each of these to have had separate circular stands and individual cameras like the ball gowns but instead they were placed on a cross shaped platform. The backs of the garments were projected onto the walls so you still go to see both sides of the garments – it was just a bit harder to see and less spacious due to the amount of people. Then there were two very large screens displaying a rotating film about a selection of the garments in the room and how they were created.
What an exhibition and what an amazing designer.
The exhibit is only open until 10th August 2014. So it’s quite a short run for such a high profile exhibition.
If you can’t make it to the exhibition then take a look at the Met website. Here they have some videos – Watch the First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech and cutting the ribbon for the opening ceremony of the exhibition and the new Anna Wintour fashion exhibition space.
Take a look at some images of some pieces in the exhibition.
The Met website is a great resource. You can search their online catalog for various fashion designers and see the various pieces they hold in storage. Click on this link to head to there website where I have done a search for Charles James.

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