Charles James Exhibit: Fashion! Art! Tailoring! And, of course, the gift shop.


Well, well. That Charles James is something. Train, auto, DC-3, oceanliner, dirigible…just get on it and go!

At this point, you can read plenty of elegant musings about the architectural, sculptural, sexual and haute coutur-al aspects of the Charles James garments on display right now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, including this comprehensive article by Roberta Smith in the New York Times Arts section today: (Article on Charles James).

I want to take you on the sewing-nut tour. Let’s go!

Charles James Met Exhibit

If you read the articles, there’s a big focus on the design and construction of 15 of Charles James’ most famous ballgowns, which are being showcased in the special-exhibition galleries on the Met’s main floor. But personally, it was the day dresses, cocktail dresses, and archival materials displayed in the galleries of the Anna Wintour Costume Center downstairs that gave me a better feel for the Charles James who worked with fabric.

When you walk in the dark, hushed space, lit by pools of light, your first encounter is with this amazing piece:

Charles James cloakCharles James quote

Thank you for that new mantra, Charles. Next to it was his “Ribbon Dressing Gown”: Charles James dresses

…hard to imagine swanning around the house in that gorgeous robe with the rows of subtly-shaded satin molding the gown to the body. Would you need a maid to sweep the floor in front of you anywhere you walked?

The dresses, suits and coats are arrayed on “islands” that the viewer can circle around, allowing you to see them from all sides. It’s a very smart layout, as all of the garments have surprising seams, contours and closures on the fronts, sides and backs. You can get within 3 to 6 feet of many of the designs, making it easy to see the details through the plexiglass. Here are a few examples of Charles James’ masterful tailoring, which, as we sewing enthusiasts know, is something that’s very difficult to do right, and very easy to screw up. On his designs, the seams are never where you expect them to be.

Charles James coatCharles James CoatCharles James coatsCharles James suit

I want that green suit.

I took two trips through this part of the exhibit the day I was there, and good thing, because I almost missed this small bright room (the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery) displaying items from Charles James’ archives. The custom dressforms he designed:

Charles James dressforms

Scrapbooks and sketches, like this one of his famous “Taxi Dress”:

Charles James sketch

Some of the hats he designed early in his career:

Charles James hats

And this famous wowza piece, a 1937 satin evening jacket, filled with down:

Charles James Down JacketCharles James Down Jacket

There was also a film showing clips of Charles James in the 1970s, prepping young models to wear his classic designs for a retrospective. I generally think of Charles James as an effete, tailored man of the 40s and 50s, but here he looked like so many of those aging lotharios I used to bump into in 80s New York, with the chin-length swept-back hair and groovy attire, trying to hang out with the club kids. That was an eye-opener.

Heading back into the main room, I saw a number of Charles James futurist 50s dinner dresses, like these:

Charles James dresses Charles James dress

And two versions of his La Sirene dresses from the 40s and 50s, with horizontal release tucks shaping the front.

Charles James Sirene dresses

Some of my personal favorites were his 1930s cocktail dresses, including this prototype of his “Taxi Dress,” so named because a girl could put it on in a taxi…

Charles James Taxi Dress

A precursor to “fast fashion,” the Taxi Dress was available in two sizes in the accessories department of Best and Co., wrapped in cellophane packaging. Now I’m thinking that Diane Von Furstenberg didn’t just come up with her wrap-dress idea out of the blue by looking a ballerina sweaters. Here’s a version of the Taxi Dress with a zipper spiraling around the side:

Charles JamesCharles James dress with spiral zipper

You can see the Madeleine Vionnet influence in those designs.

His ballgowns are works of art, but these garments, without the layers of tulle and boning, truly showcase Charles James’ legendary draping prowess.

I’ll talk more about the ballgown part of the exhibit in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I wanted to report that, yes, the skirt I was making from this 1950s Charles James home sewing pattern:

Charles James sewing pattern

did get completed in time to make it into my case for the train trip to New York, with a few minutes to spare to clean up my ragged sewing nails. I wrote about making the muslin for this skirt in this post.

I’ll admit I was beginning to waver about wearing it, thinking that walking around New York in a pencil skirt and heels would be uncomfortable and hurt my feet and a whole bunch of other lazy middle-aged excuses. Then I read this post by Laura Mae of the blog Lilacs and Lace, a sewing enthusiast who makes and wears gorgeous mid-century confections, giving her readers a pep talk about the importance of dressing up and wearing our beautiful, stylish “makes” out to events, concerts and exhibits. (Lilacs and Lace “Classic Glamour” post)

By the time I was through reading that call-to-arms, I felt like it would be darn un-American not to wear that skirt, and that I should be tap dancing around like Vera Ellen tossing flaming batons to boot!

Wearing the Charles James skirt at the Met Exhibit

Wearing the Charles James skirt at the Met Exhibit

Laura Mae, you were SO right! Without that skirt I would have felt underdressed around all of that fine, fine Charles James design. The thing I love about this skirt is that it’s shaped inward down toward the knee to look like a pencil skirt, then it flares out below the knee in a very flirty way at the side pleats (like a “mermaid” skirt), but the back is not clingy at all, so it’s very easy to walk in.

I’m wearing the skirt with the vintage Hermes scarf every gal should have in her travel bag.

My excellent sister, whom I mentioned before as having invited me to this shindig, played hooky from work to see the exhibit and fill in as the Jet Set Sewing staff photographer, then she managed to bumped into someone she knew from work…oops! Thanks again, Janet!

Of course, all good things must end at the gift shop, where I picked up this gorgeous commemorative of the exhibit: a silk scarf with sketches by Charles James.

I’ve also been gifted the book from the exhibit, “Charles James Beyond Fashion” by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder. I highly recommend it if you can’t attend the exhibit. It’s filled with large, detailed photos showing the dresses, coats, gowns, and archival materials.

Charles James Koda-Reeder book

It’s so big, once it arrives, you may need to purchase a separate coffee table to hold it.

For those of you who can’t make it to New York to see the exhibition, most of the Met’s Charles James collection is on their website here.

More to come on the Charles James exhibit. I would go back in a heartbeat.