Critics’ Picks

Charles James, Butterfly Ball Gown, 1955, brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle.

New York

Charles James

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
May 8 - August 10

Charles James’s life wasn’t all debs, soigné parties, and Slim Keith. By the time of his death in 1978, after a lifetime of striking up bad business deals and alienating scores of friends and supporters, the visionary fashion designer was living in sheer squalor in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel: sick and a pauper, months behind in rent. Despite having a small coterie of minders (or nightclubbing fans who occasionally borrowed some of his renowned frocks to party in), he died alone.

But James was far more than your average fashion-land burnout, and in this bravura retrospective, put together by the Costume Institute’s curator in chief Harold Koda and adjunct curator Jan Glier Reeder, we experience a man who posed and dallied with some of the early twentieth century’s wealthiest American and European bluebloods, but produced garments that only a sharp and stealthy avant-gardist could’ve dreamed up.

James’s confectionary ball gowns deceive the eye. They are, at first glance, stunning examples of ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s chic. But closer inspection (offered via mobile digital cameras and screens that provide extraordinary details of how each dress was constructed) reveals a love of asymmetrical structuring, unusual combinations of materials and, frankly, feats of painstakingly adroit jerry-rigging. James was notorious for fussing over his garments past the point of finishing, sometimes adding as many as twenty layers of fabric within a dress until it met his exacting standards of proportion. And some of these dresses, despite weighing as much as fifteen pounds, would just float on the wearer’s body, a result of James’s intuitive sense of mathematics, spatial dynamics, and architecture (he never received any institutional training as a dressmaker). Though James has always been referred to as an “obscure” designer, one can see his influence in the work of so many, such as Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Vivienne Westwood, or John Galliano. But thanks to this comprehensive, intelligent, and luminous exhibition: the shadows, no longer.