Charles James at the Met is that rare thing: a fashion show with research and investigation at its heart

The Charles James show at the Costume Institute of the Met in New York is that rare thing: a show with research and investigation at its very heart.

It is a show about an individual, his instincts, obsessions and predilections.

It features some of the most important garments of the 20th century, but never feels bombastic or boastful, and never takes his skills for granted.

It proves his worth rather than assumes it.

The air is of investigation and understanding through research, either into his personal life, or the actual way the garments are constructed.

The big revelation to me is a whole room dedicated to his archives, ephemera and drawings.

In the centre is his padded evening jacket from 1937.

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Its back.

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I’d forgotten that this jacket is in the V&A’s collection.

I bumped into Stephen Jones, who said it was that jacket which got him into fashion.

He said he was doing his foundation year in 1975, and had been made to go to the V&A.

He had no interest in fashion at all.

But then he saw that jacket by then then forgotten designer, and something clicked.

This was before Stephen had even thought of millinery, let alone knew that James had started making hats.

A drawing by James of the jacket.

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This man was telling anyone who’d listen it was his drawing.

(Apologies for the blurry picture).

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A woman asked him if he owned a jacket himself.

“No,” he said, “but I’ve worn one.”

The display says its one-of-a-kind, but when I posted it on Instagram a couple of hours ago, @OMGITSMHB said apparently another was made, but was trashed by models.

The display at the back of the archive room is densely packed and extraordinary.

An example of a jacket sleeve, and the sewerage pipe moulds that inspired it.

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The more sewer pipe moulds in fashion exhibitions, the better.

A child’s version, the sleeves pushed to the front to train the child to reach forwards.

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A sculptural form by James.

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Jewellery maquettes, dated 1955-65.

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A flexible sculpture named “Jennie”, created in 1966 in an attempt to move beyond the outmoded dress form.

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Extraordinary for such ephemera to be in a fashion show.

Around the room are drawings and documents.

Here’s one titled “CLIENTS I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO DRESS… SOMETIMES COULD HAVE BUT DID NOT”.

Please zoom in and read it in full.

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A document on artists and photographers who have influenced his thinking.

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If you can’t read the bottom, here’s a close-up.

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His drawings are gallery worthy.

This one is called Meta Morphology, from 1967.

It says its done in “ink, shoe polish, and graphite on paper”

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The garments themselves are split across two locations in the museum.

In the larger space, each gown is isolated on its own island, with a video display detailing its method of creation.

It’s the first time I’ve seen video and computer graphics used for genuine research in an exhibition, rather than an empty novelty.

Here’s clips of the construction process of the Umbrella dress.

Its basic outline.

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The basic shape needed to create the umbrella.

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Four of them.

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One added.

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And another.

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All four.

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The finished dress takes shape.

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And done.

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The gowns are creations of great individuality.

The Clover Leaf ball gown of 1953.

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This one is just nuts.

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The gowns dominate that space.

But it’s wrong to say the show is just about dresses, or that Charles James was a ballgown designer.

It’s belittling to his talent.

In the Costume Institute space are his extraordinary coats.

This great coat from 1961 is like present day Junya Watanabe.

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Sometimes its the details that strike.

Here’s the stitching around the shoulder of the Lyre coat from 1945.

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Close up with the stitching from the front.

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More coats.

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An evening coat from 1947.

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I started in this space, then headed over to the other gallery.

Before I left the Met, I went back to that space.

By that point it was mostly empty.

It allowed closer study.

Here’s the hip detail of the ribbon dress.

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The ribbon dress itself.

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And then, in the space, I saw Bill Cunningham of the New York Times.

Cunningham was close friends with Charles James towards the end of his life, one of the few who kept ties when James was destitute living at the Chelsea Hotel.

Remarkable to look at Cunningham, looking at his late friend’s work, work that had been ignored for so long.

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It’s interesting to me how the best exhibitions I’ve recently seen feel personal.

Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern, or David Robilliard at the ICA.

Exhibitions that seem to reveal their creator through the work.

As opposed to the Matisse Cut-Outs, which is a bravura display of the negotiation needed to put on a blockbuster, full of unbelievable work, but not much sense of Matisse himself.

The Charles James show is profoundly personal.

It is titled Beyond Fashion, and it goes beyond the basic idea of frocks to look at the characteristics of the man that created them.

It takes deep research to capture the personal with such vivacity.

If only all shows, fashion or otherwise, were curated this way.

It’s on May 8 – August 10, you must go see it.