Looking Forward to Seeing Mr. James

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.


Filed under Viewpoint

10 responses to “Looking Forward to Seeing Mr. James

  1. Good point about it being named after Wintour and not Vreeland. That’s disappointing. Maybe I’ll crash into you at Charles James 🙂


  2. Danette

    Interesting article in today’s NYTimes Styles Section. Sounds like James and Vreeland had some conflicts…..Can’t wait to check out the exhibit!


  3. I’m with you about naming the Collection after Anna Wintour, but unfortunately those naming rights do have a lot to do with money. My guess is she’s strong-armed a lot of socialites to give money as well. I’d vote for Vreeland’s name, too, sigh.
    And the book Cheap Chic! My vintage bible when I was in college! My mom got it for me and it started me on the whole vintage road. Now I’m going to be looking on Ebay…


    • I also have some deep concerns about how Wintour has influenced the exhibitions in recent years. Now that the center is named for her, I can see this influence widening.

      I wore out my library’s copy of Cheap Chic before I bought my own copy. I still have it.


  4. Totally with you on all accounts and hope to see Mr James too, if my visit to NY this summer goes ahead as planned! Thank you also for the link on the documentary, I’m looking for it even as I type…


  5. James is an icon – if all they do is set the garments out on mannequins, it will be worth seeing! I am sure James and Vreeland had issues- he had issues with everyone. I was lucky to see one of Vreeland’s exhibits – ‘Vanity Fair’ – it was wonderful and beautifully presented. Maybe not serious history, but what a show!


    • You were very lucky to have seen Vanity Fair. I’m jealous.

      I’m sure they have some interesting things planned, but I hope it does not include his bathroom at the Chelsea Hotel! (Snide reference to last year’s Punk exhibition)


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