Charles James: Beyond Fashion—Gallery Views

Gallery views of the newly renovated Costume Institute's inaugural exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, narrated by Co-curators Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder.

The exhibition is made possible by AERIN.
Additional support is provided by Condé Nast.

Harold Koda: I'm Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute and co-curator on Charles James: Beyond Fashion.

Jan Reeder: I'm Jan Glier Reeder, co-curator, and I'm consulting curator for the Brooklyn Museum Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Harold Koda: I'm thrilled that Charles James is inaugurating the Anna Wintour Costume Center and our new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, together with the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery. If you wear a down jacket, if you've ever had a wrap dress, or the strapless gown—all of those things were innovations by James, perhaps the only, and certainly the greatest, couturier that worked in New York City. He was an artist who happened to be working in fashion as his medium. 

Jan Reeder: Our intention is to represent the entirety of James's design vision and also his innovative approach to everything that he did.

Harold Koda: Given that James is considered an architect in cloth, we thought that there would be a real affinity by working with actual architects. We approached Diller, Scofidio + enfro, and they were fascinated by the challenge of presenting a designer who, throughout his career, aspired to the transformation of a woman's natural anatomy into a kind of built structure that transformed her natural shape.

Jan Reeder: The Apfel Gallery is rather a smorgasbord of various objects, ephemera, documents, and scrapbooks.

Harold Koda: He's raised in circumstances of privilege in the U.K., but comes to Chicago as a young man and decides to start a millinery business. 

Jan Reeder: And began molding hats directly on the heads of some of his very willing clients. 

Harold Koda: And he's quite a success and moves very quickly onto designing clothing. We've included his eiderdown coat. It anticipates every down jacket and puffer coat of today. He is dedicated to the idea that the fashion industry has to transform. He was just fascinated by the play of the anatomy as it existed in everyday clothing, and how it could be transformed to be something that approached an ideal. In the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, we have the opportunity to survey the whole career of James.

Jan Reeder: From the very beginning, he's approached his work as a sculptor. The Tisch Gallery is divided into four sections that represent different techniques that Charles James used: spirals and wraps, drapes and folds, platonic form and anatomical cut. 

Harold Koda: A 1932 "Taxi" dress, you see that spiraling three-dimensional configuration.

Jan Reeder: It was so easy to put on that one could actually do it in a taxi, and shows how he was not constrained by any concepts of what was in style at the time.

Harold Koda: You see draping and tucking that refer back to his work as a milliner: a jersey "Lobster" dress.

Jan Reeder: Inspired by Surrealist ideology and created by upward tucks attached to a central spine. James said, "All of my seams have meaning. They say something about the human body."

Harold Koda: James treated cloth as a very plastic medium. In the special exhibitions gallery, you're confronted by a constellation of beautiful ball gowns floating in the dark.

Jan Reeder: We've created a glamorous ballroom with each of the gowns presented as a piece of sculpture. 

Harold Koda: As you move past, we have introduced an analytical component: monitors and robotic arms devised by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro—tracing out details of the garment, balancing the romance with all of the science that went into creating that effect.

Jan Reeder: He was very influenced by late Victorian bustle dresses, and the "Swan" gown is a wonderful example. James's iteration, though, is a very light gown that he created with chiffon and beautiful transparent tulle. The "Umbrella" dress is the first dress that he created using a real understructure, and one of the very first strapless gowns.

Harold Koda: He felt that every design had to have an erotic allure.

Jan Reeder: The "Tree" ball gown has this wonderful sprouting flounce at the bottom. What's underneath, though, is a wonderful surprise: layers of red, pink, and white nylon tulle that are only revealed when the wearer is moving. The "Clover Leaf" ball gown incorporates his wonderful artistry as a sculptor and as a romanticist with the rigor of his understanding of engineering, cut, and construction in a way that made it wearable. Austine Hearst reported that it was remarkably comfortable to wear, and she felt like a princess.

Harold Koda: He was someone who was, throughout his career, evolving in his ideas about construction, but never deviated from the fact that he felt that the artifice of fashion could, in fact, improve the human body. If there was anything that worked against him as a business person, it's that he saw his design output as artistic creation, rather than something for commercial benefit. His whole methodology, his whole career, was dedicated to an artistic practice. He was a sculptor in cloth.

Producer: Christopher Noey

Editors: Kate Farrell, Stephanie Wuertz

Camera and Jib Operator: Kelly Richardson

Lighting: Ned Hallick

Production Coordinator: Stephanie Wuertz

Additional Camera Operator: Jessica Glass

Production Assistants: Sarah Cowan, Marina Zarya

Animations created by the exhibition designers Diller, Scofidio + Renfro

© 2014 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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