More from the Charles James Exhibit

Now I want to share the second part of the Charles James exhibit at the Met Museum in New York, which celebrates James’ most famous works: his ballgowns.


Fifteen of his gowns are displayed like sculpture, each on separate “islands” which allow visitors to circle the gowns and see all sides from up close.

Charles James dress

A number of the displays are equipped with “cameras” moving around the dresses and pointing a crosshatch of light on different areas of the gowns. Then, on a video screen, you see an animated Xray of that part of the dress from the interior, with an explanation of the boning, tulle and other supports holding up the gown from the inside.

Charles James Tulip dress

I noticed that the “Tulip Gown” above had the same triangular piece wrapping forward at the waist as the pattern for Charles James skirt I just made. (Details are in this post (Charles James skirt muslin).

Some videos start by displaying the pattern pieces that make up the gown, then via animation, the pieces assemble themselves to construct the dress.

Charles James naughty dress patternCharles James exhibit digital display

If dress engineering and patternmaking are your thing, you may faint at this point. The architectural firm of Diller Scofidio and Renfro was brought in to design the exhibit, and they did a masterful job.

Here’s an example of one of the pattern animations, from the New York Times’ website: (Charles James animation)

The gowns themselves are stretched onto dressforms, playing up the sculptural and frankly erotic aspects. As my sister helpfully pointed out, “that one looks like a giant (expletive deleted).” Watch your language, sis!


It’s true that many of them look, well, phallic, and this next one in particular is, erm…what’s the opposite? Vulvic?

Charles James naughty dressMillicent Rogers in Charles James

What do you think people said to the socialite wearing this? “Excuse me, Mrs. Rogers, but your dress, it looks like a giant…ummm… Say! Refill on your cosmopolitan?”

Oh my goodness, what has gotten into me?

But of course it’s the Met, so they started to wax poetic about Georgia O’Keeffe’s erotic flowers paintings being a big influence on the gown and blah-dee, blah-dee, blah…

Then as I was walking around the museum, looking for a place to change from heels to flats and put on the knit pants I’d stuffed in my bag (because I like to dress up, but I have my limits), I stumbled on the “American Art from 1905 – 1940” room. This is one of my favorite periods in art, so as I wandered among the Hoppers and other “guy” paintings, I spotted those O’Keeffe’s.

Georgia O'KeeffeGeorgia O'Keeffe


Unfortunately I was too agog by the whole thing to take many photos of the gowns, so if you’d like to see more of the exhibit, the Met has posted this video on their website, showing a number of the gowns and dresses. It’s in high-definition video, and includes commentary from the exhibit’s curators. I highly recommend it.  (Met Museum Charles James Exhibit Video)

Also Bill Cunningham’s exhibit and Met Ball photos from the New York Times are here: (Bill Cunningham photos)

As for me, clearly it was time to get out of “haughty, naughty, spawty, gaudy” New York and back to Boston proper to calm down. But what a show!

18 thoughts on “More from the Charles James Exhibit

  1. I haven’t been able to get to this exhibit yet, but I am looking forward to those construction details almost as much as the gowns themselves! Thanks for this *fun* review!

  2. OMG! SEWING NERD NIRVANA! Capitals absolutely justified. Sadly I live in Australia so no imminent visits to the Met. But how fabulous. Thank you for giving us a peak.

    • Thank you! I hope this exhibit comes your way. The Met video link in the post shows much of the exhibit, and the New York Times has had a number of articles with photos.

  3. I showed my husband your first post on the exhibit and it has inspired him to go with me on Wednesday. He enjoys sewing, it is our hobby together. He is a MIT grad and says that sewing allows him to be creative and loves the process of constructing stuff from scratch.
    We are hoping to take a draping class later in the year.
    Cannot wait til Wednesday.
    Thank you for inspiring us with your wonderful blog.

    Have you considered travelling to Philadelphia Museum of Art for the Patrick Kelly exhibit?

    • Wow, that’s so interesting that you and your husband sew together! I think it’s a great skill for everyone to have. It’s nice to have a shared interest; my husband doesn’t sew, but he will go with me to the ballet!
      There are blogs for men who sew, and a favorite of mine is
      I’ll have to google that Patrick Kelly exhibit, as I’ll be in the area this summer.
      Have a wonderful time at the exhibit!

  4. Hey, you’re funny! (bet you never heard that one…..)

    Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for these photos. I’ve been all over the other sites like a cheap suit, but I appreciate the sewist’ eye and the appreciation for anatomical humor lacking in other reporting.

    • Thanks! I know I was a little naughty, but all the coverage has been so reverent I thought it was time to remind people that it is fashion, after all. As my 12-year-old frequently says “once you see some things, they can’t be un-seen.”
      By the way, no cheap suits on this website.

  5. Oh, why does such an amazing exhibition has to take place in a museum at the other side of the planet? Already the Schiaparelli/Prada-exhibition made me wish to live in America.
    Thank you for posting so many photos, at least it helps a little 😉

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the photos! It’s so gratifying to have sewing friends visit Jet Set Sewing from around the world, so I’m happy to share my travels.
      I’m still kicking myself for having missed the Schiaparelli/Prada and the Poiret exhibits. My son was just too young to get away then, though.

  6. I keep drinking in these pictures – they truly are some wonderful creations, even if they edge towards the slightly psycho-sexual! And thank you so much for sharing, especially for those of us who can’t quite justify the trip…His colour blocking was ahead of his time. Those videos detailing the structural build up and construction would have had me entranced, I don’t doubt.

  7. Hi Julie, we met off Craftsy a couple years ago. I have a Charles James gown pattern, American Weekly 3824, and am curious if you’d want to do an exchange for this skirt pattern, the gown is very valuable and possibly the most beautiful he released. We can set up a reserve listing off Etsy if you are interested. Let me know if you are interested!

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