Without a doubt the book that accompanies the Metropolitan’s current costume exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, is the most beautiful book in my library. Reproduced on the front and back is the famous Cecil Beaton photo of eight models wearing James ballgowns. It’s a stunning introduction to a book that is full of beautiful clothes, beautifully photographed.
Rather than showing James’s work in a chronological manner, the authors place his work into four categories – Spirals & Wraps, Drapes & Folds, Anatomical Cut & Platonic Form and Architectural Shaping. It’s a very effective way of presenting his work because sometimes James would work on an idea for years. It’s easy to see how he developed techniques and applied them in his garments.
To help make sense of Charles James’s life and career, there is a year by year chronology of the events of his life. The dresses and techniques are cross-referenced with the photos throughout the book. Because James was known to tell the same story several different ways, the authors and staff of the Met spent hours trying to figure out the truth behind the legends. They did an amazing job of sorting it all out.
Besides the wonderful photos of the garments, there is quite a bit of supporting visuals, like the vintage photo seen in the layout above. Many of the dresses were shown with period photos of the dress being worn.
Others were shown with drawings James did of the garment. Some of the drawings were made at the time that the garment was designed and sewn, but most were done by him many years later. James had a strong desire to document and preserve his legacy. The collection of his work that was at the Brooklyn Museum (and which was transferred to the Met several years ago) was mainly donated by the owners who were urged to do so by James. He even sold drawings to benefactors who then donated the items to the Brooklyn Museum.
The photo of the Clover Leaf Ball Gown was enhanced by two drawings by James, both done in 1970. The bottom drawing was especially useful as it shows how the shirt was pieced. If the book lacks anything, it is drawings of this type. There were good descriptions of how each garment was constructed, but I was frequently not able to visualize the construction. A few simple diagrams of pattern pieces would really have helped, especially in the Spirals & Wraps section.
This circa 1938 dressing gown was made from wide ribbons, the shape achieved solely through varying the width of the ribbons.
As amazing as the ball gowns are, I have to admit that I prefer the precise tailoring seen in the coats and suits of Charles James. Ever since I saw the garments he made for Ann Bonfoey Taylor, I’ve been a huge fan of his coats. Just look at the cut of that sleeve and bodice!
The last section of the book was written by Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, conservators at the Costume Institute. They explained how James’s construction techniques were often “inherent vices” or that the very techniques and materials he used often have led to the garment’s deterioration. He freely mixed materials, and he manipulated fabrics in a way that has led them to be unstable.
Try not to cry over this photo of a badly damaged bodice. The chiffon has torn due to stress put on the bodice from the weight of the skirt and the operation of the zipper. There is simply no way to fix the problem, so if this dress were to be displayed pretty much all they could do is overlay the damage with a piece of matching chiffon.
If you are planning to see the exhibition, I’d go ahead and get the book before you go, because you certainly do not want to be carrying that heavy thing around the museum and city. And if you are not going, you might want to invest in this one anyway. It is a real gem.