Look At Those Clothes!

Musings on style and fashion

So Wait–You Went All the Way to New York to Eat a Hot Dog?!?

NY_1Well, not exactly. There we were, The Style Sisters and I, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, visiting the “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibition, which we’d been making a great fuss about seeing since we’d first heard about it many months ago, and what do you think we did? We behaved collectively like a balky four-year-old. No, we did not want to spend hours studying each gown carefully, reading all the text, solemnly gazing between text and dress as many others were doing, talking about facings and bonings and seams. No, we did not want to immerse ourselves in the letters and clippings and sketches that filled up a room and filled out the story of this eccentric genius.

What did we want to do instead? We wanted to go outside into the glorious New York summer day and sit on the museum steps and eat a hot dog while watching people from everywhere taking pictures of each other eating hot dogs in front of one of the greatest museums in the whole wide world. Even Paris Gray-Brown, the solemn intellectual of the group, contributed her jot to the whining and complaining and begging to be taken outside immediately.

Part of the problem: Because James’s genius lay in his stunning ability to envision and execute gorgeous structures (also known as “clothes”), much of this quite amazing exhibition focuses on showing visitors how the magic happened. But we do not sew. And thus we could not convince the 4-year-old to show more than a glancing interest in the sewing and construction details—although she did very much enjoy the animations that showed the individual sections of a gown coming together to form the whole. “Look at that!” she kept saying, as delighted with the last animation as with the first.

But as anyone knows who has ever had or observed or been a balky 4-year-old, one does not push one’s luck in public by insisting that they do that which they have declared they do not want to do. So we watched many animations, and we dutifully looked at every gown and coat and dress for just long enough to get a sense of its innovative beauty.  We shushed the 4-year-old as she loudly declared that she did not like the famed Taxi Dress, of which we have written elsewhere, one little bit. But we did so mildly because, frankly, neither did we. We thought it dowdy, lacking in the effervescent grace of  James’s gowns and evening dresses. And the three clasps in the front make it look like nothing so much as a giant Ace bandage.

And then we all headed outside for our most excellent hot dog, after which we trotted off through the sunny streets to visit a couple of thrift stores we knew of on Third Avenue, not far from the museum: a Housing Works (they help the homeless and people with AIDS and have shops all around the city) and one run by the  Arthritis Foundation. On the fanciness scale, these shops are pretty much like the Sal A’s and hospice shops we visit back home. The pedigree of the goods is a bit different, though: Along with labels like Lands’ End and American Eagle, these shops step up to Alfani and on to Michael Kors and Sonia Rykiel, with some Dema  thrown in for good measure. (But we did once find a Michael Kors skirt in our local Sal A!)

The cost for all this big city booty? From $10  to $500 bucks, with a lot in the middle at $10 to $40. That’s a much wider range than we typically see in similar shops back home (or anywhere we’ve been besides NYC). And, as at most thrift stores, the pricing sometimes defies logic: $12 bucks for a thin, tiny little skirt from Forever 21, while the Michael Kors cashmere and cotton sweater was $10!

But guess what? At Housing Works, we found this thin cotton Gap shirt for a mere $3—it was on the Reject Rack!New York June 2014 063 So that was a happy moment.

And then we made the major mistake of buying a sweet little Art Deco faux marble tray for our coffee things.New York June 2014 073

And a couple of books that together weighed nearly 800 pounds.

The tray was only $8, the Writing New York book a mere $5, the Deco one $4—bargains, yes, but hauling them around even the limited part of the city we visited was not fun.  Especially because on the way to meet The Man in the Plaid Shirt at the Museum of Natural History we stopped off at the Met again to buy another book we’d seen New York June 2014 092on sale for 9.95 and thought we could not possibly leave behind.

Resolved: Do not buy books in New York. Do not even look at books in New York. No doubt we will break this rule because the Big A thrift stores we’ve visited so far (admittedly very few) have curiously lackluster clothes but some excellent books.

But rules, they are made to be broken, at least once in awhile, are they not? Just ask a balky four-year-old.





Categories: Art of Fashion, Been to a Museum Lately?, Look What We Found at the Thrift Store!, On the Road Again

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Reading this reminded me that I wanted to connect you with Arden Kirkland, a friend and former colleague from way back when I worked in costume shops. Here is a nifty current-day video of Arden talking about the historic costume collection at Vassar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-xXusUnXa8. Interestingly, when I was hunting up the video to show you, I discovered that she’s now very interested in ways of using digital media to make historical objects accessible — like the animations at the Charles James show! Here’s Arden’s blog: http://ardenkirkland.wordpress.com/


  2. Just finished reading about the “eccentric genius,” Charles James. In some unexplainable manner, I always thought of those two words as belonging together. In his case, it appears to be more than true.
    Appreciated your perspective on the exhibition as a non-sewer. However, as a sewer, I would have enjoyed knowing the details of HOW he customized his fashions. I was always fascinated by the magazine pictures of the rich women of New York society and the stars of Hollywood in their glamorous gowns. In fact, I used to spend hours as a young girl designing clothes on notebook pages. In retrospect, many of his gowns served as my inspiration.
    Thanks for the memories.


    • Glad you enjoyed the post! I did manage to learn that besides thinking in innovative ways, James was totally outside the box when it came to cutting, draping, and sewing, and he used unique fabrics and fabric combinations. Plus, he draped cloth so that many seams were either unnecessary or disappeared once the garment was sewn up, and he was one of the first to use zippers in dresses. (Imagine that–it wasn’t even very long ago!) And he created all sorts of understructures–the stuff that the Met’s x-rays and muslin mock-ups show. As one who sews, I bet you’d enjoy poking around the Met’s website; you’ll find mounds of articles besides this interview with one of the the curators, which reveals some of the sewing secrets.

      Speaking of secrets, a New Yorker article on James by Judith Thurman points out that James’s sewing was sometimes quite shoddy. But hey, just because you’re an eccentric, obsessive genius doesn’t mean you have to be obsessive about everything. He was probably obsessing about something else, like the sleeve he did over so many times that it supposedly cost him $20,000.

      Seems Charlie (as his friends called him) really wanted to be known as a teacher, so I bet he’d be gratified to know that his work inspired your designs when you were a girl. If you’d like to start drawing again, you’ll find lots of good books out there to help you along. It’s never too late!


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