You'll be hearing the name Charles James a lot this spring. The late designer is the subject of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute annual exhibition, titled Charles James: Beyond Fashion. Opening on May 8, the exhibit will be the first to be displayed in the museum's new Anna Wintour Costume Center.
James' Butterfly dress photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1954.You're probably familiar with the famous 1948 image by Cecil Beaton, exclusively featuring James gowns, but I'm guessing that you don't know that much about Charles James (neither did I)— and that's how the Met planned it. I spoke with Harold Koda, the esteemed curator in charge at The Costume Institute about Charles James and the museum's mission to tell its visitors the story of America's first, and—possibly most famous—couture designer.
Socialite Babe Paley wears a James gown in 1950.
But first,some fun facts about Charles James:
Glamour: Why do you feel that now is the right time to feature an exhibit on Charles James?
Harold Koda: We've been waiting forever to do this show. We wanted an astonishing reopening [for the Costume Center] and because he's less known and yet, he's a genius, it seems appropriate. We're introducing people to someone we find fascinating and is worthy, but he's not a household name.
Glamour: How unlikely was it in James' time to be invited to show alongside the French couturiers?
HK: Really unlikely. The whole American practice was to look to Paris and he was following his own drummer. He'd have an idea and he'd pursue it.
Glamour: What's something many people don't know about James?
HK: He was part of the [fashion industry's] system, but he was always constrained by it. He approached his work as an artist. Nothing else mattered except the created piece—not the client, not the deadline, not a partnership agreement and not a family at home.
Glamour: James created some of the most glamorous and gorgeous ball gowns of all time. What was his vision? What did he want the wearer to feel?
HK: He felt clothing should have appropriative intention: so it's sex. It's amazing that you never s see vulgarity in his work, but it was all predicated on woman being these vessels of sexual desire.
A ball gown that will be on display at the Met from 1949-1950.
A black evening dress from 1948.
Austine Hearst wears James' famous 10-pound Clover Leaf gown in 1953.