Advance Details of “Charles James” Exhibition and new Anna Wintour Costume Center from the Metropolitan of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a press presentation on Monday, February 10, 2014, at the Museum to reveal early details about The Costume Institute’s upcoming exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, and the new Anna Wintour Costume Center, both opening on May 8.  Aerin Lauder, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, and Anna Wintour joined Museum Director Thomas P. Campbell, Museum President Emily Rafferty, and Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute Harold Koda in the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery for a glimpse of some of the James gowns to be featured in the exhibition, on view May 8–August 10, 2014, at the Met in New York City.  Elettra Wiedemann wore a facsimile of Charles James’s Clover Leaf Gown; the facsimile was created to study the dress in motion, since the original, like all accessioned objects at the Museum, cannot be worn.

Top Photo Caption: (from left) Thomas P. Campbell, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, Anna Wintour, Aerin Lauder, Emily K. Rafferty, and Harold Koda at the Met’s Charles James: Beyond Fashion advance press event. Bottom Photo Caption: Elettra Wiedemann (right) in a facsimile of Charles James’s Clover Leaf Gown opposite the original gown (left).

Top Photo Caption: (from left) Thomas P. Campbell, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, Anna Wintour, Aerin Lauder, Emily K. Rafferty, and Harold Koda at the Met’s Charles James: Beyond Fashion advance press event.
Bottom Photo Caption: Elettra Wiedemann (right) in a facsimile of Charles James’s Clover Leaf Gown opposite the original gown (left). Photos: Joe Schildhorn, BFAnyc.com

The Costume Institute’s new Anna Wintour Costume Center will open on May 8 with the inaugural exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion, on view from May 8 through August 10, 2014, which will examine the career of legendary 20th-century Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906–1978).  The exhibition will be presented in two locations–the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Center as well as special exhibition galleries on the Museum’s first floor.  The exhibition will explore James’s design process and his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today.

The retrospective exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, will feature approximately 75 of the most notable designs produced by James over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978.  The first-floor special exhibition galleries will spotlight the resplendent glamour and breathtaking architecture of James’s ball gowns from the 1940s through 1950s, worn by such renowned clients as Austine Hearst, Millicent Rogers, and Dominique de Menil.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) "Butterfly" Ball Gown, ca. 1955 Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Fund, 2013 (2013.591)

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978)
“Butterfly” Ball Gown, ca. 1955
Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Fund, 2013 (2013.591)

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) Ball Gown, 1949–50 Red silk velvet, red silk satin, white cotton organdy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954 (2009.300.2786)

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978)
Ball Gown, 1949–50
Red silk velvet, red silk satin, white cotton organdy
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954 (2009.300.2786)

The new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will provide the technology and flexibility to dramatize James’s biography via archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his last studio in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel.  The evolution and metamorphosis by James of specific designs over decades will also be shown. Video animations in both exhibition locations will illustrate how he created anatomically considered dresses that sculpted and reconfigured the female form. 

Austine Hearst in Charles James "Four Leaf Clover" Gown, ca. 1953 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photographer Unknown, © Bettmann/CORBIS

Austine Hearst in Charles James “Four Leaf Clover” Gown, ca. 1953
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photographer Unknown, © Bettmann/CORBIS

“James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression,” said Jan Glier Reeder, Consulting Curator in The Costume Institute, who is organizing the exhibition with Harold Koda. “In fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘…his work went beyond fashion and was a fine art.’” Beyond Fashion was also the title James chose for the autobiography he never wrote.

James was so keen to ensure his legacy by preserving the “corpus” of his work in one institution that he persuaded important clients to donate his designs to the Brooklyn Museum.  The transfer of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection to the Metropolitan Museum in 2009 augmented the Met’s Charles James holdings, and with recent acquisitions of early designs and archives, the Museum now has the most definitive body of James’s work in the world, and the most comprehensive collection of a fashion designer’s work of any museum.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) "Taxi" Dress, ca. 1932 Black wool ribbed knit The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Alan W. Kornberg Gift, 2013 (2013.309)

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978)
“Taxi” Dress, ca. 1932
Black wool ribbed knit
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Alan W. Kornberg Gift, 2013 (2013.309)

After designing in his native London, and then Paris, James arrived in New York City in 1940.  Though he had no formal training, he is arguably one of the greatest designers to have worked in the tradition of the haute couture in America.  His fascination with complex cut and seaming led to the creation of key design elements that he updated throughout his career: wrap-over trousers, figure-eight skirts, body-hugging sheaths, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, and poufs.  These, along with his iconic ball gowns from the late 1940s and early 1950s–the “Clover Leaf,” “Butterfly,” “Tree,” “Swan,” and “Diamond”–will be showcased in the exhibition.

Charles James, 1952 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Look Job 52-1129 Frame-18

Charles James, 1952
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Look Job 52-1129 Frame-18

The exhibition is organized by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder. The exhibition designers are Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York-based interdisciplinary design studio led by Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro that integrates architecture and the visual and performing arts.  The décor for the 2014 Costume Institute Gala Benefit will be produced by Raul Avila for the eighth consecutive year.

A book, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder with a preface by Ralph Rucci and contributions by Costume Institute Conservators Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, will accompany the exhibition. This publication will be illustrated with new photography of James designs, including details highlighting the materials, construction, and conservation of the pieces, as well as rarely seen vintage photographs from the designer’s archive.

Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the $50 catalogue (hardcover only) has 264 pages and 330 color illustrations.  It will be distributed by Yale University Press and available in early May.

May 2014 will mark the opening of the Anna Wintour Costume Center space after an overall two-year renovation, reconfiguration, and updating. The 4,200-square-foot main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will feature a flexible design that lends itself to frequent transformation, a zonal sound system, innovative projection technology, and wireless connectivity.

The Anna Wintour Costume Center will also include: the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, which will orient visitors to The Costume Institute’s exhibitions and holdings; a state-of-the-art costume conservation center; an expanded study/storage facility that will house the combined holdings of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection; and The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, one of the world’s foremost fashion libraries.

The project is funded by a $10 million gift from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, as well as proceeds raised at the annual Costume Institute Benefit under the leadership of Met Trustee Anna Wintour, and from commitments by Janet and Howard Kagan and the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc.  The Costume Institute was last refurbished in 1992.