NEW YORK — “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” is opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 8; its accompanying book of the same title, by The Costume Institute’s Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, demonstrates just how inspiring James was, and how much “beyond” clothes that influence goes.
It chronologically details the life of the Anglo-American couturier, from his 1906 birth into a life of privilege at the family’s Surrey, England, estate through his success and later years when he served as a consultant to Halston. It also, through illustrations, photography and detail shots of garments that will be on display, gives a view into the designer’s complex mind and how, aesthetically, he was a precursor to Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga. Many of the looks, particularly the evening gowns, still feel contemporary — a blueprint, one could say, to today’s red carpet dressing.
Various chapters focus on the detail of James’ craft, including “Spirals & Wraps,” “Drapes & Folds” and “Architectural Shaping.” As James himself put it, “My structures…look as if the body is no more ambulatory than a mermaid’s yet permit large reckless movement.”
Ralph Rucci provided the prologue. “Charles James had nothing to do with fashion,” he stated. “Rather, he applied himself to the rigors of mathematics in the creation of fashion.
“[His designs] are not merely clothes, or ‘shapes,’ as James would call them,” Rucci added. “They are three-dimensional sculptures that come alive once on a woman’s body, because James was ever mindful of the woman wearing the shape. He was the couturier.”
The cover of the book, which is distributed by Yale University Press, features the famous 1948 Cecil Beaton photograph featuring eight women wearing James gowns in an opulent mirror and panelled setting.
The exhibition runs through Aug. 10. It will kick off with the annual Costume Institute gala benefit on May 5, with Aerin Lauder serving as the evening’s chair. Bradley Cooper, Oscar de la Renta, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch and Anna Wintour will serve as cochairs.