Charles James at the Met

This is a long one, and picture heavy, so grab a cup or glass, sit back, and enjoy. 🙂

The iconic image of Charles James gowns photographed by Cecil Beaton

I was in New York for a series of meetings this week. Yesterday morning, I got a call about an hour before one of my scheduled meetings that the vendor was sick and couldn’t make it. That gave me a couple of hours to kill. Let’s see, I’m in New York, I have nowhere to be until noon. What to do? It took me all of about a nanosecond to hail a cab and head up to the Met, where “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” is on display. I had less than 2 hours, so I booked it right for the exhibit.

The exhibit is outstanding for the most part. It’s split into two areas. The first area houses the iconic James gowns: Tree, Butterfly, Four Leaf Clover, Swan and many others. These gowns are heavy. They weigh between 12 and 20 lbs. Vogue has a fun article about the comparative weights of several iconic James Gowns. For example, Tree:

Named after Marietta Tree, Mother of the model Penelope Tree

Named after Marietta Tree, Mother of the model Penelope Tree

Weighs 13 lbs, or as Vogue likes to say, about the same as an average sized watermelon. The Butterfly dress, which I am kicking myself for not getting a picture, weighs the same as 5 baby French Bulldogs. Speaking of which, Puppy Dress!!!!

I have never claimed to be anywhere near Charles James' abilities, but I do like French Bulldogs

I have never claimed to be anywhere near Charles James’ abilities, but I do like French Bulldogs


Swan, with like, a bajillion yards of tulle

Rather than blah blah blah you to death, let me just share the pictures I took. They allowed pictures, as long as you didn’t use flash. I only had my phone with me, so pardon the low quality.

Swan Back

As close as I could get to the Swan from the back. These dresses stood a solid inch away from the body

Back of the Tree

Back of the Tree

Green ballgown, whose name I didn't note

Green ballgown, whose name I didn’t note

Green ballgown with photoshopping to try to see it better

Green ballgown with photoshopping to try to see it better

Evening Dress 2

Evening Dress with velvet bodice and silk satin and faille skirt (color enhanced for contrast)

I cribbed this picture from the Chicago Museum site

I cribbed this picture from the Chicago Museum site

Something cool that the exhibit did was they had videos, camera shots and ‘x-rays’ of the innards of the dresses. They used robotic arms to highlight the areas they were describing on monitors, and they even (and this was totally cool) had one camera that delved under a dress to show the multicolored layers of tulle that made up the underskirt.

The silk and velvet Four Leaf Clover was there, as was this absolutely spectacular lace and silk version

Lacy Clover 1

The best video was the one showing how the lace was appliquéd to this gown.

Lacy Clover Back Lacy Clover 2
Here are some more pictures with some detail shots
Pouf Gown

Seaming and Hem on a Pouf Gown

This bridal dress was designed by Charles for a Modess sanitary napkins print ad. My, how times have changed…

Modess Bridal Gown Back Modess Bridal Gown
This dress was designed for the opening of a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit, and is meant to reference the female genitalia. Can I just say? I am no prude but I don’t need any literal references to the vajayjay running down the front of my dress.

Couture Ew

Couture Ew

There’s a reason that look never caught on, Chuck, trust me.

After the Iconic Gowns, the exhibit continues.
Temple of Dendur

On the other side of the museum, behind the Temple of Dendur (which is so cool, BTW) and down in the basement!
Seriously, the gowns are front and center, and the rest of his work is consigned to the cellar. The curators were trying to say something here. Maybe the curators were inadvertently imagining the wearers of his other outfits to be traveling by subway? Who knows. But in the (basement) Anna Wintour Costume Institute, the works displayed were in many cases, remarkably pedestrian. Coats, day and evening dresses, worn by the socialites of the day, and no doubt worn beautifully, but they were not iconic. They are not notable. They are not even memorable.

Evening Dress

Draped evening dress

Dinner Dresses

Dinner Dresses

Day Dresses

Okay, these day dresses were spectacular.


But this coat? Not so much

As I said to Phyllis, ‘These reminded me of Ethel Mertz and Mamie Eisenhower.’ I said earlier that the show was outstanding for the most part. The part that was outstanding was on the first floor, not in the basement. The coats, dresses and outfits – even the gowns, are of their time. They are a wonderful diorama of postwar chic. James is considered visionary, but his vision doesn’t translate across time. They are costumes that were worn by our grandmothers. Beautiful costumes, but costumes nonetheless.

While this may be more of an historical reference, the show is really worth seeing. If you can get to New York to see this exhibit, by all means do! It’s a great snapshot of American fashion history.

Happy sewing!

7 thoughts on “Charles James at the Met”

  1. Allyn says:

    Oooooh, what a treat it must have been to see those amazing dresses in person! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Debby says:

    Fascinating! Thank you.

  3. Pamela says:

    I had the privilege of seeing some of his works at The Chicago History Museum. His work is certainly beautiful and his talent was immense but, I feel the same way about his pieces being beautiful costumes from the past.

  4. Toby Wollin says:

    I get the feeling looking at those dresses that those are garments that wore YOU, not the other way around.

  5. Sheri says:

    I went to see this yesterday with my best friend. We looked at the day clothes first, and then the ball gowns. While in the ball gown room my friend asked which was my favorite. I had to think for a minute – the ball gowns weren’t really doing it for me – but I loved that red wool coat in the basement.

    So interesting how we can look at the same thing and see something totally different! The ball gowns are way out of the realm of the world I live in; however, I felt I could wear several of the day dresses and coats. I loved that dress that was sort of like a jumpsuit where the skirt wrapped between the legs. People, run, don’t walk, to see these clothes!

  6. Elle Dechene says:

    So glad I ran across this post before the exhibit concludes! I’ve just made plans to go see it next weekend. Now, those day dresses are gorgeous. The necklines, the slightly-off-the shoulder look, taking the sheath dress from fashionable to sublime. It can’t be that difficult to revise a tried-and-true sheath dress pattern along these lines, can it?

  7. Carolyn says:

    I so agree with your assessment of this exhibit. The ballgowns and the way they were exhibited took you to flights of fantasy and made you wonder what it was to live like that – able to afford a $1200 dress in the late 40’s! Then to head to the basement and have “Macy’s” like dresses and coats by the same designer…even with that said it was a great exhibit to see!

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