You are here

The Beautifully Sculpted World of Charles James

Published on
May 12

Charles James Ball Gown, 1953 Clover Leaf

I'd been waiting for the Charles James exhibit to re-open since seeing this video in early December on the creation of one of his ball gowns from the 1940s. 


The Met does not disappoint. The exhibit consists of approximately 65 designs and pairs extensive video with each ball gown. These videos help the viewer to unfold, undrape, and de-seam the gowns back into their 2-dimensional shapes. With a background in sculpture, I loved how James used draping, folding, and wrapping to help create billowy, voluptuous forms that would in a sense transform the wearer's own figure. The exhibit is divided in two with ball gowns on the first floor, and cocktail / other designs in the newly renovated Anna Wintour Costume Institute on the lower level. This ball gown and all the ones on display on the first floor are show-stoppers. Each is exhibited on its own circular pedestal, inviting the visitor to circle round, perhaps as admirers would around its wearer.


Two particular favorites of mine, perhaps because of their bold simplicity were Ball Gown (1954) of green silk satin (my own sketch from the show is above, left) and Clover Leaf (1953) of silk/synthetic (my sketch above, right). The green ball gown is striking in its deep, rich color, and bold spiraling skirt which started below the wearers lower left knee and swooped around in back, climbing until securing in the front. Each vantage gives a new view of the undulations of the lower skirt and its resulting wide, bold skirt shares a slightly similar look to the Clover Leaf. 

Aptly named, the Clover Leaf gown branches out in four lobes, its skirt stretching out at a bold angle to encompass the wearer in yards of silk. James increases the dramatic impact through a pattern of black velours de Lyon that flows horizontally across the four lobes of the dress. Though the effect is simple and staggering, the architecture is extremely complicated. Thirty pattern pieces, twenty-eight of which are cut in duplicate, two cut singly, compose this dress. James's approach was summarized nicely in this quote included in the exhibit "Cut in dress making is like good grammar in a language. A good design should be like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea at a time."


The exhibit continues on the lower level in the newly renovated Costume Institute. The lower level exhibit has a wide variety of cocktail apparel, (such as bottom left dress) and insight into the process behind James's approach. The Ribbon Evening Dress (1937) reflects his meticulous piecing together of fabrics and creative wrapping (bottom right sketch).

Cocktail dress


This exhibit is excellent for those who are interested not just in fashion, but also in form, patterns, color and texture. 


Charles James: Beyond Fashion runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 10, 2014. The Museum is part of Passport to Museums, permitting free entry to Columbia students with valid CUID and validation sticker.