If you can manage to focus on the dresses, the Metropolitan Museum’s Charles James: Beyond Fashion, opening today (to Aug. 10), is a delicious visual feast. For me it triggered nostalgic thoughts of my own mother’s ’50s wardrobe. Not that she flounced around our fifth-floor Bronx walkup looking like Babe Paley. But I could perceive how James’s flatteringly cut inventions in sensuous fabrics—an elegant look that was highly influential in the late ’40s and early ’50s—had filtered down to the low-priced knockoffs that my always-shopping mother managed to find in the department stores.
This one’s not knockoff. It’s a knockout…but it might pose logistical challenges to socialites walking through doorways:
An authentic James even entered the wardrobe of an artworld figure whose interest in couture you might not have previously suspected:
The opening of the redesigned, technologically advanced Anna Wintour Costume Center occasioned these in-person remarks by Michelle Obama before she cut the inaugural ribbon (which was not at the Costume Center but at the Temple of Dendur). Unfortunately, the new center was not sufficiently commodious to accommodate the entire show of approximately 75 garments from the 1920s until James’ death in 1978. His iconic ball gowns—must-haves for his era’s social elite—are arrayed in the first-floor special exhibition galleries, a long trek through the Egyptian galleries, across the Great Hall and on a different level from the rest of the show. Some members of the press didn’t realize they needed to go to two widely separated spaces to view the entire array.
The exhibition is a coming-out party for the James trove that the Met acquired in 2008, when the Brooklyn Museum transferred to it the cream of its costume collection. The show also marks the happy union of James’ sartorial gifts to the Brooklyn Museum with his archives, which only last year was transferred to the Met.
As for the very conspicuous technological enhancements, I loved the animations that graphically showed how the architecturally complex dresses—composed of a variety of materials, some visible, some in supporting roles beneath the surface—are assembled. (The NY Times posted one of these animations, here.)
I was also fascinated by the X-rays that showed the underpinnings:
But I could have gladly done without the robotic cameras and projectors that distractingly stalked these beauties, interrupting our own gaze. They didn’t add enough to our understanding of James’ methods to justify this ugly intrusion:
And there’s no excuse for the view-obstructing text on the vitrines, inexplicably positioned at eye level:
All these enhancements and distractions were conceived by the exhibition’s designers—architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. What bothered me most about the installation was its dim lighting, which rendered James’ drop-dead, ingeniously constructed creations as flat and drab, when they should have wowed us as multi-textured and vibrant. Here’s a dress that I featured in my Storify, below, as it appeared in the Met’s installation:
To see it in its vibrant glory, you have to go to the show’s catalogue:
It’s possible that the low lighting levels were dictated by conservation concerns. But they may have been required for the visibility of the sequence of light projections on various sections of the dresses, which were provided by the infernal contraptions. These unnecessary aids highlight the areas being dissected by the accompanying animations. But one can easily understand the animations and what parts of the dress they elucidate, merely by looking at them.
For more on what I saw and felt at this engrossing show, here’s a Storify compilation of my tweets from Monday’s press preview: