Draped in a majestic red Ralph Lauren caped column dress at this year’s Golden Globes, Lupita Nyong’o catapulted from red-carpet neophyte to certifiable style icon. That same night, Lena Dunham hit her sartorial sweet spot in a canary-yellow Zac Posen mermaid gown. While patently different, both richly hued, architectural silhouettes referenced one designer—the under-feted, madly idiosyncratic Charles James, who this May is the subject of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently opened Anna Wintour Costume Center.
Celebrating his intently constructed structural gowns, Charles James: Beyond Fashion (to August 10) will include 75 of his most renowned designs, as well as archival pieces, video animations and partially completed works from his final days living at the Chelsea Hotel in the late ’70s. The exhibit will open after the annual Met Gala on May 5. It’s safe to assume that this year’s ball, spurred by James’s passion for resplendent fabrics, will look something like Cecil Beaton’s famous 1948 Vogue photograph of his designs: a bevy of beauties sheathed in layers of icy mint, honeyed bronze and saffron silk.
“James dreamt that … the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource,” Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Met Costume Institute, wrote in a press release. “In our galleries, we will illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math and science.”
Born in England but lauded as America’s first couturier, James once told Interview Magazine that “nothing of worth is produced without the profound study of the structure reduced stage by stage to the minimum,” a philosophy he honed during his years as a milliner, starting in 1926—Diana Vreeland was a client—and often making hats directly on his customers’ heads. Following his first Paris haute couture collection in 1937, which included his soon-to-be-standard “rib- bon” dresses, Harrods and Bergdorf Goodman scooped up his designs. In 1940, he set up shop in New York.
James’s mathematical approach to tailoring is nowhere more evident than in his construction. Haute scaffolding sup- ported tiers of silk and taffeta—featherweight in appearance, a garment could near 10 pounds. His stitches were done in cursive: figure-eight skirts, spiral-zipped dresses and elaborate gowns with names like Swan and Four-Leaf Clover.
Over the years, his clients included Coco Chanel, burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee and art patrons John and Dominique de Menil, whose modernist Philip Johnson home in Houston, Texas, he decorated. Known for his egocentric temper and stickler resolve, James overthrew the house’s strict lines and furnished the glass box with lush pieces that mirrored the figuration of his dresses, like a chaise longue in chartreuse silk.
James’s businesses eventually nosedived, due in part to poor management. And yet his influence continues to ripple—think Jason Wu’s bodiced chiffon gowns, Wes Gordon’s asymmetrical construction, or most of Posen’s work. Without James, red-carpet glamour would lack the erotic (and escapist) magnificence that transforms the hour leading up to the Oscars into a veritable jewel-toned sculpture garden. —Durga Chew-Bose