Charles James, 1936. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.
NEW YORK - The Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is as scientific as it is glamorous. In a two-floor retrospective as technologically innovative as the designs of “America’s First Couturier,” the exhibition uses robotic arms and x-rays so visitors can comprehend the construction of the gowns from the hardware of the corsets to the layering of the tulle skirts. Although the exhibition space was left sparse to let the fashions be the focus, I found myself feeling as if I had just entered a ball on the Upper East Side circa 1950. Although the room was quiet, I heard the tapping of heeled shoes, the murmuring of society gossip and the clicking of Cecil Beaton’s camera as he documented the scene. Although the gowns stayed still on their respective pedestals, with each movement of the robotic arms I saw women sashaying across the dance floor to reveal a colorful sea of silk and satin. Although the room was dark, the heaps of diamond jewels accompanying the gowns acted as chandeliers to illuminate the space.
Installation view showing the ‘Tree Ball Gown’ from 1955 at the Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As has been my nature since childhood, and is now my professional bias, I couldn’t help fully accessorizing each design as I circled them one by one. Immediately I saw strong correlations between James’ designs and the evolution of jewelry trends. Like the jewels that would have accompanied them, James’ fashions closely hugged the body and required the activation of the wearer to reach their full potential (the ‘Tree Ball Gown’ from 1955, for example, had a skirt of red, white and pink tulle which was revealed only with the movement of the wearer). The construction of the designs reminded me of Mystery-Set jewels by Van Cleef & Arpels, both keeping their intricate supports hidden so that the wonder of their materials and unique shapes remained the stars. The malleability of designs such as the ‘Butterfly Gown’ from 1955 (completed by a removable train, bustle and satin sash details) brought to mind transformative jewels such as the ‘Passe Partout-Hawaii,’ also by Van Cleef & Arpels, which could be worn in a variety of configurations.
(left) Charles James. Butterfly Gown. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (right) Gold ‘Passe Partout-Hawaii’ Flower Set. Sold at Sotheby’s 29 April, 2014.
Walking through the primary room of the exhibition I mentally placed 1950s swag-style necklaces with the gowns, the delicate gathering of the diamonds complementing the perfectly arranged bustles of the skirts. To accompany the dramatic structure of the 1949 ‘Tulip Dress’ I imagined a pair of cascading diamond earclips that delicately framed the face. A 1934 Vogue article titled Fashion: Accompaniments told its readers, “Don’t be afraid to let your earrings spread over your cheeks,” and I knew that no woman bold enough to wear Charles James would have a problem following such a glamorous commandment. Viewing a 1948 black satin evening dress with a sharp bateau neckline and dramatic open back with overlapping strips of black velvet, I thought of the cover of our April 2013 Magnificent Jewels catalogue which featured a stack of two wide diamond bracelets accented by a Cartier ‘tutti frutti’ masterpiece. The stacking of bracelets had seen a surge in popularity during the Art Deco era, with a 1930 Vogue article titled Fashion: Dramatic Modern Jewellery proclaiming that for bracelets, “Two plain and a third with mixed colours makes a good wristful.”
(left) Charles James. Evening Dress, 1948. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis. (right) Three bracelets: Sold at Sotheby’s 17 April 2013.
The lower level of the exhibition focused on James’ designs centering on “Spirals and Wraps.” With their large lapels in a variety of hues and shapes, the coats he created in the 1950s begged for clusters of flora and fauna-inspired brooches. Observing the 1932 ‘Taxi Dress’ which James proclaimed was so simple to wear that one could change in or out of it in a taxi cab, I wondered if the designer single-handedly foreshadowed the ‘Day to Night’ aesthetic that consumed the jewels of the 1950s. Similarly, the ‘Ribbon Gowns’ of the late 1930s, constructed from vertical strips of ribbons in alternating shades and sizes, called to mind late Deco jewels, echoing the newly constructed skyscrapers that pierced through the metropolis skies.
Diamond Necklace: Sold at Sotheby’s 24 September, 2013.
Charles James: Beyond Fashion invites visitors to relate James’ innovative designs to the changes underway in the greater world of fashion, art and design of the time. As James was sewing asymmetrical hemlines and bodices, Jackson Pollock was standing over a canvas dramatically dripping paint off of his brush. As James created swirling skirts that commanded a room, jewelers such as Cartier experimented with curvaceous volute-shaped jewels that could transform from a pendant into a clip-brooch and fastened on the hip of a gown. The world of Charles James inhabited a time when the ideals of the custom-made started to clash with a growing consumer culture (department store Lord & Taylor, for example, offered many of James’ designs). Despite such societal shifts and changing fashions, the designs of Charles James, like the diamond jewels that accented them, last forever.