Charles James, that is, and seeing his work, not the man himself. You probably have heard by now that this year’s exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan in New York is on the clothing of James. I can’t think of a more appropriate designer to have his work on display in an art museum than James. His work really did transcend fashion and entered into the realm of something higher.
I’ll be writing more about James when the exhibition opens, and hopefully I’ll be visiting New York this summer so I can see this show. But today I want to talk about the Costume Institute.
I’ve written about how after Diana Vreeland was fired from Vogue, she was asked to be the director of the Costume Institute. Under her direction, the Costume Institute blossomed, with the exhibitions being theatrical and extravagant productions. You can say that her work there has set the tone for what the Costume Institute does today. It helps when going to their shows to remember that it is after all, an art museum. We history people tend to want a strict historical accuracy, but the shows, both under Vreeland and today, are about visual impact.
Vreeland’s vision for the Costume Institute continues today. She’s probably the most important person in the history of the institute. What a shame that the newly remodeled galleries have been named for Vogue editor Anna Wintour. I realize that Wintour, as the chairperson of the fund-raising gala has raised millions of dollars for the Met. It’s just one more example of the person who gives the money, or in this case, coerces it from others, gets the building named for her, instead of the woman who made the institution what it is today.
I feel that the Metropolitan is a bit too cozy with Vogue and its editor. One of the biggest criticisms of the most recent shows has been that they are too commercial. The idea that a magazine whose mission it is to promote the fashion industry, and to help sell clothes should have such influence over the one show a year that the Costume Institute produces seems to me to be a big part of the problem. I’m just hoping that with the Charles James exhibition, this will not be an issue, as there nothing to be sold.
The photo of Diana Vreeland was taken at the Costume Institute and was published in Cheap Chic by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, 1978.