Recently I took a little time to visit the new Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was both impressed and not impressed with the whole thing. I suppose after experiencing Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, Charles James is tame subject matter.
So let me air the cons first. The exhibit is very unfortunately spread over a few small galleries in the museum, meaning one has to hike all the way from European or American statuary, through the Wrightsman Galleries, through the Medieval galleries, across the lobby and through the Egyptian wing to the Temple of Dendor, and finally down a flight of stairs to see the second half of the exhibit. Any atmosphere that the exhibit was meant to have is dissolved after having to follow vague signs and cryptic security guard’s instructions across the museum, elbowing through crowds as you go. This trek would be better with the help of a map, so FYI, if you go, grab one before you head into the Greek & Roman galleries (where the first exhibit begins).
So there’s really no atmosphere, which is a shame – but that’s the worst aspect of this exhibit. The cool parts are as follows:
1) So these ballgowns are really complex. The museum broke them down with computer animated videos showing how each was draped, cut and sewn. Some videos even show X-ray images of parts of the gowns. The brilliance of James’ design is in his drapery, and these animations and live camera feeds show exactly how awesome his work is. The entrance to the first gallery even has a handful of muslins on dress forms, so you can see the process of designing the gown.
2) Robotic arms with cameras at the ends move around the gowns, showing close-ups and angles that you might not see from where you stand.
3) The gowns are so well-lit, even for being in a darkened room, that you won’t miss a detail. Somebody did an awesome job with that. Most of the gowns are on their own slightly elevated platforms, and you can actually walk all the way around them. Others are on a larger platform, sometimes partially behind glass, but the design of the exhibit allows you to see from most angles, even if it means crossing the room. Hallelujah! No more security guards getting nervous when I bend over to see something a few inches closer.
The brilliance of this exhibit is the way the gowns are presented, and the videos and camera feeds. The exhibit designers and curators certainly chose the perfect way to illustrate James’ genius, and they executed it perfectly. It’s the next best thing to actually holding the gown itself. Visitors get to see truly iconic designs, up close and personal. It’s not a complete experience, and it might have a bunch of frustration thrown in the middle of it as you try to find the next gallery (I had given up finding it when I found it; I was walking out when I saw the entrance), but the presentation of each item is magnificent.