At the Met: “Charles James: Beyond Fashion”

by Anna Horton

Currently held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Costume Institute displays works of the extraordinary designer, Charles James. The exhibit is open to the public and runs through August 10th. Going to the exhibit is an eye-opener and inspiring in every way for designers, scholars, or any form of fashion enthusiast.

Bravely, the Costume Institute took on the challenge of showing highlights of James’ extensive career as a fashion designer. Charles James is nothing short of a genius, and it is proven by the heavy thought process portrayed in his garments; his peers called his method Jamesian. His work was often compared to Paul Poiret, not because the garments are similar, but both designers were revolutionary; Poiret is known as the master of color, while James was known for construction. Luckily for us, James documented all of his design work to build a legacy for himself. His attention to detail and technique is extraordinary, which is evident in his muslin gowns. It is crazy to see muslins completely appropriate for the ball room when typically they are ratty and torn. James firmly believed in the power of fabric, and he manipulated it until it could last as a concrete structure. Amazingly, he could make a gorgeous ball gown look effortless yet still contain intense structure


The museum does a great job deconstructing the design of each garment, so that the viewer can understand the heavy thought process behind the construction. The vibe of the exhibit was dark, which made it easy to focus on the digital screens displaying design process and thought. James was known to spend hours on one seam to perfect it. The exhibit also displayed his personal collection of plaster mannequins that he sculpted himself. Printed on glass walls, James’ quotes surrounded his gowns. To me, the quotes were more influential than the clothes, and as a designer, I felt deeply connected to them. This quote, for instance, “All my seams have meaning-they emphasize something about the body.” reflects the truth of an articulate design. Every piece of the garment had meaning and constructed by his personal blueprint.


The Charles James exhibit is definitely worth going to visit, and it was truthfully one of the most inspiring exhibits I have seen in a while. Designers like James are rare, and, at least for me, it seems essential as a designer to learn and practice his techniques. So, before the exhibit is gone, go to Charles James: Beyond Fashion and enjoy being surrounded by the works of a fashion genius.