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May 08 - Aug 10

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd St), New York, , NY 10028, USA
  • Austine Hearst in Charles James “Four Leaf Clover” Gown,ca. 1953. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photographer Unknown, © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • Charles James fitting a dress for loyal client and socialite Austine Hearst

  • Charles James with Model, 1948. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast / Charles James “Taxi Dress”, ca. 1932. Black wool ribbed knit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Alan W. Kornberg Gift, 2013 (2013.309)


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Charles James: Beyond Fashion retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

“Charles James: Beyond Fashion” is the title of the major retrospective that The Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicates to the prolific career of the Anglo-American couturier. The exhibition coincides with the inauguration of the Costume Institute’s new Anna Wintour Costume Center and will feature more than seventy-five creations of the designer. According to the organizers of the showcase, Charles James (1906–1978) was known for his sculptural, scientific and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today. He was born in London and at the age of nineteen he opened his first hat shop in Chicago, before moving to Long Island and then to New York, where he began designing dresses with great success. In 1947 he presented one of his most celebrated collections in Paris and in the 50´s he was spending most of his time in New York. He retired in 1958 and died 20 years later at the legendary Chelsea Hotel.

Although he was autodidact, he is considered to be America’s first couturier, and his perfectionism, his excellent skills, his structured, voluminous silhouettes and his trademark jewel tones gained him worldwide acclaim. James even studied human anatomy in order to make his designs look even more sculptural. He was pretty aware of his charisma as a designer, he considered his dresses as works of art and he often urged his clients to donate his pieces to the Brooklyn Museum. Christian Dior is said to have credited James with inspiring The New Look, and Balenciaga was referring to him as “America’s greatest couturier, the world’s best and only dressmaker who has raised it from an applied art to a pure art form.” Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, the curators of the exhibition, state that James’ 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.

“Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching”, said Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute. “Even if you look through the history of French haute couture and all the English couture designers, James stands out as a very idiosyncratic personality and artist and one of the few designers who, in his own lifetime, felt that his work transcended the medium.” Koda also revealed to WWD that one of the main reasons that they chose to dedicate a retrospective to the designer was the fact that, although he is wide known to the fashion specialists, he remains relatively unknown to the audience at large because he doesn’t have a surviving label or brand. There is no doubt that MET’s exhibition is one of the best ways to honor the memory of Charles James, keeping his legacy alive, and to introduce his inspiring work to all the people that are not familiar with it.

“Charles James: Beyond Fashion” will be on show from May 8 to August 10, with a benefit gala, chaired by Aerin Lauder and co-chaired by Bradley Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, Oscar de la Renta, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, as well as Anna Wintour, set for May 5. The exhibition will be accompanied by a book, entitled “Charles James: Beyond Fashion”, written by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, with a preface by Ralph Rucci and contributions by Costume Institute conservators Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen.