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"Don't These Belong Somewhere?": Making Available the Charles James Papers

Charles James

Charles James in the 1950s. Unknown photographer

For the past two years, two archivists have arranged, described, and rehoused the papers of Anglo-American couturier Charles James, with the goal of making them easily usable by scholars, graduate students, designers, and others interested in studying the James legacy. This blog series has given a behind-the-scenes look at the project's progress, and concludes below.

The goal of an archival processing project is to make a collection available for research—to take it from whatever condition and order it was in when last handled by its creator or custodian, and render it usable to scholars and researchers. Doing so involves physical preservation of the materials: to slow their inevitable deterioration as much as possible, while making them safe to be handled. It also involves writing intellectual descriptions to help researchers find what may be useful to them. Every collection is unique and poses different challenges for the archivist, based on what kinds of physical materials it includes, how large it is, how it was previously stored and by whom, as well as its potential research value.

James color

Documents from the Charles James papers. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted

Our experience processing the Charles James papers is a vivid before-and-after story. Consisting of 200 linear feet of correspondence, financial documents, photographs, press clippings, work notes, audiovisual recordings, sketches and drawings, patterns, and objects (from dress forms to desk paraphernalia), they run the gamut of size and format. As documented in a previous blog post, James directed his customary intensity of purpose to his records, endowing them with research value in a manner prescient for an artist in the 1960s and '70s. During those last decades of his life, James worked incessantly—obsessively, even—on donating his garments to museums, establishing and disseminating a curriculum for design schools, exhibiting examples of his designs, and organizing his vast trove of records. With a constantly changing cast of students and assistants, he expended considerable effort on these tasks. Yet James's fickle, energetic mind led him to use an overwhelming array of confusing and overlapping organizational schemes, none of which ever lasted very long or herded his disparate materials effectively.

James papers

Material from the Charles James papers

The Costume Institute at The Met acquired the James papers in 2013, together with a collection of James garments that complemented The Costume Institute's existing James holdings to create the largest such group in any museum. They arrived in the very same containers they had been packed into, recovered from his studio rooms in New York's Chelsea Hotel shortly after his death in 1978. Some materials were merely wrinkled, torn, or dirty; others featured more serious condition issues, such as mold and mildew. Armed with dry sponges and stacks of acid-free enclosures, we donned our smocks, gloves, and the occasional dust mask to make these materials stable for storage and safe for access. While a large amount of the papers were in relatively decent condition, they still needed triage, such as rehousing into stable, acid-free containers; removal of rusted staples and paper clips; and the unfolding and flattening of large, unwieldy folded and rolled items.

James notes

A document from the Charles James papers

James worked in large format, matching his outsize energy and personality. He and his office team created charts, storyboards, posters, portfolios, photo reproductions, and even correspondence on an often enormous scale, sometimes pasting or taping together sheets of paper or poster board; their goals were larger than the local stationery stores' supplies. One of the major considerations of our processing project was how best to store and be able to transport some of these larger documents, which you can read about here.

Large container

Construction of a portfolio to store oversize materials. Photo by Celia Hartmann

In addition to determining how best to store the James papers, our interrelated task was to describe them in a way that would be understandable to any reader. Archivists call this exerting intellectual—as distinct from physical—control over records. Because physical and intellectual control are two sides of the same coin, the disarray we faced in physically arranging the material also posed a challenge in describing them. Our intellectual order needed to be different than James's so as to establish clear organization, but we also wanted to capture the original disorder from those original boxes we received, to reveal rather than obscure our decision-making process. We have attempted to be as transparent as possible in our documentation processes.

The report that guides users to the collection is called a "finding aid." Part physical inventory of the boxes we rehoused and part contextual resource, the finding aid includes biographical and historical information to point researchers to the various topics and themes in the James papers. We have striven to communicate the particular and fascinating challenge inherent in organizing these uniquely wide-ranging materials. The collection will provide significant information for an enterprising graduate student, fashion historian, or New York City nerd. It illuminates James's design process; his philosophy of how design should be taught, with complicated sample curricula; a window into the cultural moment of 1960s and '70s Chelsea; and insights into James associates, such as fashion designer Halston, fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, illustrator Antonio Lopez, and others. The collection's finding aid is now available online, accessible to any internet user. Representing the culmination of our two-year project, it will allow the materials to be used in ways that we may never have predicted to promulgate James's legacy in ways he may never have imagined.

Charles James note

A note written by James from the Charles James papers, reading "Don't these belong somewhere?"

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