Charles James: Beyond Fashion

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.

 

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About Amanda Goebel

I'm an Anthropology / Fashion History and Material Culture graduate from The University of Delaware, currently working on a Master's in Museum Studies. I'm a living historian interested in costume and culture from years before. I love researching the mundane and the everyday that has changed or disappeared since. I re-enact the 18th century, and I recreate clothing from that time. This blog is where I'll write about my research and projects. View all posts by Amanda Goebel

4 responses to “Charles James: Beyond Fashion

  • kittycalash

    Thank you for the review! I’m trying to figure out when I can get down to see this, and it’s very helpful to have an honest costumer’s appraisal. Not every installation lives up to the concept or the material, but sometimes the material is more important. Sounds like the infrastructure view of the gowns is what makes this show.
    Fingers crossed for seeing it myself!

  • Jamie Durham

    I will be in New York for a few days the first week of June. This is the first time I have been to New York when there was an ongoing exhibit in the Costume Institute; needless to say, I am thrilled! However, I’m trying to get a feel for the crowds and ticketing (logistics — where is UPS when you need them??). Are the crowds large for the exhibit, and is my ticket to the Met the only one I need, or is there a separate, possibly timed ticket for the exhibit? Thanks so much — it is extremely difficult to find the answers to this sort of question on the Met site.

    • Amanda Goebel

      There’s no need to purchase an additional ticket to see the Charles James exhibit! Yay! You can wander in and out as you please, and it’s not timed. The crowds were varied while I was there – I was unfortunately in the middle of a school tour in the second gallery, but they cleared out quickly. The first gallery is fairly open and can accommodate a lot of people, the second one, not so much. I never felt that it was too crowded to see something, though. And here’s one last tip: try to pick a sunny day; the Met tends to be crowded during poor weather!

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