Over the past several years, the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute has been attracting a great deal of interest for creating bold exhibitions focusing on the art of fashion. The Alexander McQueen "Savage Beauty" show in 2011 and last year's "Punk: Chaos to Couture" exhibition are especially outstanding for the kinds of conversations they sparked about the intersections between avant-garde fashion and modern/contemporary art. This year's selection of a seemingly traditional evening gown designer thus seemed an odd move for the museum. Charles James to the average person, or even those with some rudimentary knowledge of fashion history, is certainly not a designer that comes to mind as especially iconic or transgressive. But it is clear upon closer research and consideration that James was influential and well respected as a true artist and quiet innovator within the fashion industry. In the New York Times this week, art critic Roberta Smith in reviewing the Met's exhibition described James' designs as equal to that of other innovators of the past century. "It reveals an artist" writes Smith "as interested in visual spectacle and extremes as McQueen, but with a more classical, architectural mien and a more subtle sense of ostentation. One of James’s most stunning ball gowns is an ivory silk satin number with four voluptuous, bustle-like forms protruding at the front, back and sides. It has been described as resembling a half-open parachute and is also a kind of walking soft sculpture."
Digging a bit further, we learn that James was the first designer to be collected by an American art museum-- the Brooklyn Museum-- which leant the exhibition forty garments for the show. As many commentators have noted this week, James' interest in space and architectural forms helped influence the silhouette and shapes we think of in fashion today as especially modern. The comparison of his designs to the modern art of New York in the 1950's and 60's (in particular the work of abstract expressionists) is also especially compelling here. Smith refers to James' designs as "a sartorial sublime" in this vein, and there is certainly a sense in all of the discussion that a well-deserved place in fashion history is being made for James that links his aesthetic to an especially American modern art sensibility.
In 1972 when James was featured in Warhol's Interview Magazine, he was characterized even back then as a reclusive designer, known for an intense dedication to his craft and the skill set required to execute his highly structured and painstakingly elaborate designs. This at a time when the casualization of fashion was well underway. Living and working in the famed Chelsea Hotel that helped foster the 1960's counterculture, he spoke candidly about the timeless and enduring quality of his designs in the face of trends, fashion transitions, and outright plagiarism: "I don't think that my work has ever been out of date, in that it was only ahead of its time, therefore it was only a matter of waiting until it became a New Look; and right now I feel that what I'm working on can replace the tacky, fag-hag-drag that which has been passed off as fashion by those who never learned the rudiments of cutting and fitting; usually working from sketches and plagiarizing the process designs produced by the couture markets of the world."
To be sure, there will be those who argue that the Charles James exhibition is too restrained, conservative, and even elitist as a follow-up to the McQueen and Punk shows of the past several years. I am still undecided on this count, but I do think that the title "Beyond Fashion" suggests that the Met Costume Institute is continuing to push forward the argument started with these earlier shows about the relevance and place of fashion as a worthy form of art. That they chose to celebrate a formalist and less overtly avant-garde or "sexy" artist is a tactic not dissimilar to the one used by modern art museums when they seek to tell the complete history of art through retrospectives of lesser known (at least to the public) artists. It is the sketches, patterns, material, and work that become the focus in the Charles James exhibition, and these are essential components to the workings of fashion design and production that are often missed by today's fashion consumers.