Would you like to see a wrap dress that debuted 42 years before Madame von Furstenberg’s? (It’s the “Taxi Dress,” so called because it was very easy for a lady to remove or put on in the back of a taxi—never mind why she’d want to; that’s her business.)
And how about some of the luscious strapless gowns that made possible every other strapless gown ever to enhance a princess and enchant her prince?
You can see all these and so many more very innovative and mostly very beautiful pieces at the “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through August 10. It’s a huge to-do honoring an eccentric genius who’s been called the greatest couturier of the 20th century; an artist, sculptor, architect, and engineer in cloth; and the most famous designer you’ve never heard of. Well, maybe that should be the most famous designer most of us regular people have never heard of: Designers from Dior to McQueen know and love James’s work; Dior even credited him with inspiring the very feminine post-World-War II “New Look” for which he (Dior) became famous. My own impression: James is the sort of genius whose work makes everyone else look as if they’re pedaling along on training wheels, turning out variations on themes—his themes.
In haute couture, so I hear, the devils (and the angels) are in the details: You can’t really understand what’s fabulous about fabulous (and fabulously expensive) garments unless you see how they’re made. And see James’s garments you will: animations show you how the various complicated and very carefully cut and seamed pieces go together to make the assembled garment (sort of like clothing jig saw puzzles). And x-rays show you the understructure that supports many of the gowns.
Besides honoring James and his astonishing technical skills (all the more astonishing when you learn that he had no training in clothing design), the exhibition serves as the “Whoopee, we’re done!” celebration of the reopening of the Met’s Costume Institute after a 2-year, $40 million (yup, $40 million) renovation. No less a personage than Michelle Obama cut the ribbon to open the Anna Wintour Costume Center, which is the Costume Institute’s exhibition space. Ms. Wintour, editor in chief at Vogue, serves as a Costume Institute board member and raised several million bucks for the renovation. And she seems to be one of Mrs. O’s besties, which certainly can’t hurt one little bit.
This whole affair was the subject of the Met’s yearly glitterati-studded gala to benefit the Costume Institute, and it’s been quite the hot topic in all the fashion rags. Bottom line: It’s a very carefully done exhibition that that can be enjoyed on lots of levels, so drop on by if you’re in the Big A with a couple of hours and 25 bucks to spare. (That’s the recommended museum entry fee, but you can offer less and they’ll still let you in. Spend the rest on some Charles James postcards, a big fat salty hot pretzel. some cheap chic street vendor jewelry . . . )
And, in the meantime, have a look at the piece on the exhibition written by my friend Michelle O. Dente over at SJ Chronicle—edited by yours truly.
Categories: Been to a Museum Lately?