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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Charles James, Beyond Fashion

charles james clover gown
charles james dress
What makes Charles James the most respected technician and designer of fashion?  The Metropolitan Museum of Art aims to explain this with their new exhibit, Charles James, Beyond Fashion.

While non-fashion fans may not be aware of his name and work as much as mega-brands like Chanel or Prada, anyone in the design field has probably studied his creations as a master class.  You may have heard clothing being described as "architectural" and missed the connection.  Looking at a Charles James dress, this is where you finally understand how a garment can resemble a scientifically constructed building.

The designer is most famous for his clover gowns created for special clients in his 40 year career, having first debuted in 1953.  The signature look is the way that the skirt drapes into a shape resembling a four-leaf clover.  For those of you who have never draped a soft, delicate, two dimensional fabric to cover a three-dimensional body, it might be impossible to understand what a feat of engineering this is.  As a fashion student, the legend was that these gowns were so impeccably constructed, they stood up on their own.

met fashion charles james

While I have seen many of these pieces in previous exhibits over the past 20 years, what was impressive to me about this show was the high-tech tools used to educate the viewer on the genius of Charles James.  There were large screens programmed next to each gown on the first floor gallery.  The screens displayed intricate 3D animations of each layer and pattern piece that went into each dress.
You might see each layer of horsehair, satin, lace, tulle and what their flat piece looked like (much like a Roschach test) and how it was draped and sewn into place to create the fully dimensional garment.  Robotic arms highlighted each area on the gown represented by the screen.  On the yellow satin lace gown (top photo) lace inserts were even lit from within to demonstrate its sheerness.  It also showed that in addition to the masterful shape of the lace on that skirt, there were hand-cut and stitched lace motifs added on top of the gown to give a more artistic layout and texture.

While the creativity or style sense of Charles James was undisputed. He saw himself as a problem solver and teacher.  The scrapbooks and studio part of the exhibit indicated he analyzed more effective ways to fit the human body, attempting to re-invent the modern dress form.

He was passionate about construction, innovative seaming, circle-cut gowns.  Many of his looks are iconic and never duplicated.  Some of his biomorphic designs were well ahead of their time, influencing other designers like Christian Dior, Zac Posen and Alexander McQueen.

Make sure to catch Charles James, Beyond Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before August 10, 2014.
photos by Mariana Leung

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