Agenda: Charles James at the Met Costume Institute

One of my favorite things about summer in the city is the annual opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute annual show.  In 2009, the Brooklyn Museum transferred its large costume collection to the Institute and in 2010 the American Woman exhibit was held at the Met and supplemented by more garments at the Brooklyn Museum.

The 2011 McQueen exhibit hosted over a half a million guests, the 2012 exhibit paired Scaparelli and Prada, and the 2013 exhibit was Punk (fortunately, the Impressionism, Modernity, and Fashion exhibit was occurring at the same time).

This year, returning to the beauty of fashion and debuting the newly renovated Anna Wintour Costume Institute gallery, the exhibit is dedicated to Charles James.

James is considered one of the early the premier couture designers in the United States.  Despite my lack of knowledge of James’ work, the Cecil Beaton photograph that appeared in Vogue in the 50s and used in the show’s marketing materials was enough to convince me I needed to see the show.



Shown in three separate galleries, I started on the first floor.  The gallery was spacious and very dimly lighted.  I have noticed at other shows that the lighting is set low because the curator is concerned with the light affecting the delicate fabrics – or to hide imperfections like stains.  But this was not the case for this exhibit.

Charles James Met Costume Institute

Once you approached the dresses, you noticed each one had a video screen attached to the base where the curators comments are usually posted.  And I thought,

“Great. Now I have to stand a watch a video of the curator talking about this dress.  Maybe I am the only person in the world who finds video commentary annoying.  Just hand me the transcript and let me read it…this is going to take forever…”

And then the magic began.

Standing in front of the Clover Leaf dress, center above, the screen began to deconstruct the dress, pulling it apart at the seams, laying it flat on a cutting table and then the animation would  reassemble the dress.  Brilliant!

Charles James Met Costume Institute

The technology is the work of a New York based firm, Diller Scofidio & Renfro.  The firm is self-described as an inter-displinary design studio that integrates architecture, visual arts, and performing arts.

Using 360 cameras, x-ray, and computer models, over 20 pieces were dissected and deconstructed.

Charles James Met Costume Institute Technology Review

The far left image is of the clover leaf dress shown above, the center dress shows the x-ray technology which was then overlayed with text pinpointing the structural components of boning, tulle, and organza.  The far right dress shows the ribbon components being placed on the form and the completed dress is pictured below on the far right.

Charles James Met Costume Institute NYT Review

One of the more well-known James designs is shown above center.  The Taxi Dress wrapped the body and was fastened at the waist – an obvious forerunner to the wrap dress.

These dresses were displayed downstairs, along with a separate gallery of James’ art, letters, and custom dress forms.

Charles James Met Costume Institute

The same gallery played various audio clips of James talking about his work.  During the exhibit, I was distracted by the audacious claims of James presenting himself as the best thing that ever happened to fashion.  It was kinda like listening to Kanye West talk about himself as a genius.  Here are a few quotes from the exhibit that made me roll my eyes.


But after viewing the entire exhibit and considering his innovation with draping, pattern making, and structural concepts, I am starting to agree with James’ arrogant view of himself.  After all, Dior credited him with the volume associated with the New Look and DVF has built an empire based on his taxi dress.

I loved the exhibit and am searching my calendar to find time to see it again before it closes on August 11th!  If you are not able to attend, the Met produced a wonderful video discussing James and the technology deployed in the exhibit.  And I have noticed pressure on social media for the Met to supplement the wonderful catalog by posting the amazing technology images on their site – which I hope they do!


p.s. The Met Costume Institute just announced a fall show!  Opening October 21, “Death Becomes Her” will focus on the costume of mourning from the past century.  Seems like a pretty good warm-up to Halloween!


Additional reading:

First Look: Charles James – Vogue

Where Elegance Meets Eros – NYT Review

Architecture Underpinnings of Cinderella – NYT

Video Tour of Charles James Exhibit – Met

 DS+R Scanning Beyond Fashion at the Met – Huffington Post


images via sites listed above as additional reading and Morgan Coonce