It is in many ways very fitting that Charles James: Beyond Fashion is the inaugural exhibition at the newly renamed Anna Wintour Costume Center. Both James and Wintour share a British background and bold, historic fashion careers that came to fruition in the United States, and an unparalleled precision in their crafts. No doubt had they overlapped Wintour would have appreciated James’ tireless devotion to detail and innovative designs, as well as his commitment to teaching the technology behind fashion.
James once said “my dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had,” a statement both reflective of James’ background studying architectural design and the array of highly sculptural ball gowns on display, transforming The Met into a mid-twentieth century high society affair. James was immaculate in his work, known to spend weeks perfecting a single sleeve and shredding dresses that didn’t meet his highest standards. “Cut in dressmaking is like grammar in language,” James observed. “A good design should be like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea at a time.”
Ever the visionary, James is attributed for inventing the infinity scarf and the wrap dress, the latter which he designed for the woman on the go, made to slip into between parties and named the “taxi dress.” James debuted the A-line coat a decade before Yves Saint Laurent walked trapeze silhouettes down the runway. He was the first to use spiral draping and zippers as a design element and embellishment, and introduced an elegant model of down jacket in white satin, described by Salvador Dalías “soft sculpture.”
Praised by Christian Dior as “the greatest talent of my generation,” and by Cristóbal Balenciaga as “the only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art,” James was revered by his fashion peers and a devoted clientele including Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Arden, and PrincessGrace of Monaco. An homage a long time in the making, Charles James: Beyond Fashion introduces a man well known through his legacy to a whole new generation of admirers. The exhibition is on view through August 10th.