Unless you are living under a rock, you know that the long-awaited Charles James exhibition at the Met opened to the public today. The press preview was earlier this week, and already there are enticing images showing up on fashion blogs. It really does sound like the fashion event of the summer, and unlike last year’s Punk fiasco this show is getting rave reviews all around.
There are enough recaps of the life and career of Charles James that I’m not going to add to the noise. I’ve been reading about him all morning, and after a bit all the articles started sounding the same. Most of them used the same “iconic” Cecil Beaton photograph, and most mentioned the same three garments – the taxi dress, the white satin puffed evening jacket, and the clover ballgown. It began to feel as though I was reading the same press release over and over.
It rather bothers me that they all keep referring to James as “forgotten.” No, his is not a household name, but few dead designer’s names are. Ask your non-fashion-history-nut friends if they know Claire McCardell or Bonnie Cashin or Paul Poiret or Adrian. I’m pretty sure they will not know any of the names unless they are older and can remember them from when the designer was active.
Of course there are the dead designers whose labels live on such as Chanel and Lanvin and Dior and Balenciaga and Saint Laurent. But with the exception of Chanel, whose image is kept alive by the company, and Saint Laurent who only recently died, are the others really remembered? Can your average fashion consumer tell you about Jeanne Lanvin?
To people who love fashion history, James has never been forgotten. Even during the last years of his life when he was pretty much not working, he was sought out for inclusion in a book called The Fashion Makers, by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris, published in 1978, the year of James’s death.
Most of the excitement surrounding the exhibition seemed to be centered on his lavish ballgowns, but my favorite James designs are his tailored suits, coats and dresses. After seeing the collection of Ann Bonfoey Taylor last year (she had fourteen James garments) I came to greatly appreciate the skill that man had in cutting a bodice and sleeve.
Start at the waist and let your eye follow the seamline all the way to the sleeve cuff. Then note how the bust dart is actually part of the sleeve.
This is the back of the shoulder of another garment. See how the seam curves to fit the shoulder. The seam that cuts across the bottom of the shoulder continues on to the front and is the princess seam of the bustline.
Here are two coats, showing details. The checked coat is cut on the bias, with the set-in belt cut on the cross grain. How effortless he made a very complicated construction look!
I hope that many of you will be able to visit the Met this summer to see this show. Until I saw the work of Charles James in person, I did not really understand just how great it was. There is a reason everyone keeps referring to him as a genius.