The center opens a new exhibit to the public Thursday featuring the work of Charles James. Although James' name is not well-known to the general public, he's revered by fashion industry insiders and designers. James was known as America's first and really only couturier until his death in 1978.
Through his complex, innovative work from the 1930s through the 1950s, he designed dresses of stunning glamour that often resembled sculptures more than mere garments. His clients included Gypsy Rose Lee, Marlene Dietrich and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr. His clothes — revolutionary in their time — had a huge influence on modern fashion. Christian Dior called him "the greatest talent of my generation."
The show, "Charles James: Beyond Fashion," emphasizes technology. In a large ground-floor gallery, animated videos illustrate how each gown was constructed, from the original piece of fabric to the intricate completed garment.
A 1938 black gown in silk faille, one of the first strapless gowns to be made in the 1930s, is called the "Umbrella" evening dress because the folds of its skirt, structured with silk-encased "ribs," resemble a folded umbrella.
A 1932 knee-length black dress is called the "Taxi Dress" because, James used to say, it was so easy to put on you could do it in a taxi — it was basically an early wrap dress. A 1933 black satin cocktail dress features an early use of a zipper seam. A "Ribbon Dressing Gown" is made entirely of ribbons of different widths, in peach, gold, yellow and ivory silk satin. The shape of the gown is formed not with seams and darts, but merely by varying the width of the ribbons.
James even designed the first elegant puffer jacket. Only one of them was made, said curator Harold Koda, touring the exhibit with a reporter recently, and it was passed around among his fans and clients.
But James was most proud of his striking 1953 "Clover Dress" in white satin and black velvet, with a full, sculptured skirt formed with four distinct "lobes" — like a clover. The gown's wide skirt never touches the ground — it is meant to lift up on the dance floor and create a gliding effect. Met curators commissioned a full recreation of the dress so that they could better understand how it moved and what it was like to wear.
One room of the exhibit is devoted not to gowns but to biographical items — such as hats, James' earliest designs (he started as a milliner in the 1920s), prototypes for jewelry and typewritten notes to his assistant that display his rather mercurial and demanding work style.
One document from James' typewriter, from later in his life, lists celebrities James hadn't dressed, but wanted to, including rocker Mick Jagger — whom he calls "a sexy bastard" — David Bowie and Lou Reed.
James was born in England, but came to the United States at age 18, first to Chicago. He later centered his business in New York, catering to well-known socialites of the day.