Monday, 19 May 2014




Babe Paley in a Charles James gown
Babe Paley in a Charles James gown, 1950.
Photograph from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photograph by John Rawlings, Rawlings / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently underwent a 40 million dollar revamp of its Costume Institute galleries, including the new Anna Wintour Fashion Center. A week, and a bit, ago the Institute opened its "inaugural" exhibition called Charles James: Beyond Fashion.

The Costume Institute's Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda
The Costume Institute's Andrew Bolton (left) and Harold Koda stand among a trio of Charles James's dresses. Photograph by Matthew Kristall for Wall Street Journal

The exhibit will focus on James' innovative construction and design. About 65 of his designs are shown in two different locations in the Met. One of which is the first-floor special exhibition galleries which "spotlight the glamour and resplendent architecture of James's ball gowns from the 1940s through 1950s." Additionally the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery "provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James's biography via archival pieces including sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, and partially completed works from his last studio in New York City's Chelsea Hotel."

Charles James Ball Gowns
Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948
Photograph from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast
Charles James "Butterfly" gown
Charles James "Butterfly" Gown, 1954
Photograph from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton
The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

What is interesting, and intentional on the part of the museum, is the marriage between James' technological and technique based advancements in dress construction and the techniques and technology the Met is applying to the exhibit as well as the museum itself with the new upgrades courtesy of the renovation.

Part of the exhibition experience is recordings of James' voice and 3-D image projections that show the inner layers of James' designs. The use of X-ray images to show visitors a different view, or different perspective of the designs is mirrored by James' own use of complex structures for his gowns. For instance, his use of millinery net, willow and buckram for interior structure provided the basis for astounding architectural constructions.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Met's new renovations are not restricted to gallery spaces: "a new conservation lab, equipped with wide doors to accommodate large gowns, a wet lab for treating fabrics and a fume-extraction unit. There's also an updated storage system to handle the museum's collection." 

Michelle Obama, Thomas P. Campbell, Anna Wintour, and Emily K. Rafferty cut ribbon
Michelle Obama cuts the ribbon alongside Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO
of the Metropolitan Museum, Anna Wintour and Emily K. Rafferty,
President of the Metropolitan Museum.
Photograph from The Telegraph

It is clear that the Met's renovation is beginning with a few big names, as it were. We've got Charles James, couturier extraordinaire; Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue; and even Michelle Obama cut the ribbon. Sometimes, it seems when it comes to big museum exhibits all there is are big names. The name of the exhibition, the name of the gallery and the name of the museum itself. However, especially when it comes to fashion exhibits, I often wonder who these exhibits reflect. Certainly the socialites, debutantes, magazine editors who feature and wear designs like James'. With the Met's Costume Institute this seems, perhaps, natural. That the Met would feature this exhibit after recently opening it's renovated facilities is not surprising, in some ways this is where couture belongs.

Chales James: Beyond Fashion
"Charles James: Beyond Fashion," on view through August 10
Photograph from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Instagram

This also reflects broader problems in museum collections for me (and this can certainly be said of archival collections as well), that the objects only show a certain type of individual. And this is of course for the simple reason that these are the objects that survive. In fashion collections the evening dresses of young, wealthy women are reflected in abundance. They are the dresses that are kept and remembered. We know who wore it and where they wore it, we even have the photographs to accompany them. 

I found myself contemplating this last year when the ROM had their BIG exhibit on. Not that I didn't enjoy the exhibit in some senses, but it did make me wonder what that Dior dress was doing at the ROM, in Toronto. I have recently read a few of Alexandra Palmer's (senior curator at the ROM) works on Toronto's post-war couturier's and I found them fascinating.  For me, this is the story I want to see at the ROM, or really anywhere. Not the story of a Dior gown constructed in Paris and immediately purchased for a museum collection.

But I suppose I have to remember that museum's have to work with what they've got. You cannot show gowns you do not have. Museum's must work within their collections, or what they can get on loan, and create stories from this. And really, who am I to talk about not wanting to see big names, I just posted five photographs of Charles James' gowns and would definitely want to see the exhibit.


  1. This is a really great topic to broach the subject of what artifacts get saved, preserved, and remembered. From what I have noticed both working/volunteering and visiting museums it is the elite who's story gets told, because (generally) they are the socio-economic class which has the means to preserve and save. As always, museum professionals have to walk the line between what the public wants, what they have in their collection, and what "needs" to be said. I don't think it will ever be an easy task.

    1. Well said! I completely agree with "anonymous". As an emerging museum professional yourself Alex, who is passionate about textiles, it sounds like you will look beyond the grandeur of upper-class artifacts and find value in textiles worn by the lower classes.

      On a side note, here is a link to an interesting interview with the Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibition catalogue co-author, Jan Glier Reeder.

  2. Oh, good old fashion :) This topic is so rich and complex and always "hot" in the ranks of museums so I am glad that we are talking about it here on Musings - I think one major tension is between "fashion" and "wear" (or textiles, costumes, etc). Fashion tends to be attached to some very clear visuals in our social imaginary which often refer to opulence, glamour, spectacle...exhibitions about fashion are often considered crowd pleasures because of the overall fascination (for whatever reasons) with contemporary fashion design.

    But there is so much messiness behind the idea of fashion which I would like for museums to explore more (and some do, in all fairness) - the context (political, social, cultural) is very important in a fashion exhibition - because even the most glamorous of fashion artefacts has a history which is interdisciplinary and complex. For example, Hussein Chalayan's 2012 exhibition "Fashion Narratives" ( at the Les Arts Decoratifs ( in Paris explained the use of fashion for projects with a more political intent (which of course could be further discussed and debated).