Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Following on from yesterdays review of the Charles James exhibition, I wanted to review the accompanying book. I was able to find it on an online book retailer, which made life much easier than having to cart it back from the USA in my hand luggage...
The book is a weighty tome, and a fantastic coffee table book with over 250 pages filled with photos, biography and an exploration of Charles James's life and work. The collection was originally housed at the Brooklyn Museums costume collection, which was then transferred over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009. It was celebrated in the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum earlier this year.
The book starts with a chronology of Charles James's life, from his childhood and early adulthood spent in England in a privileged upbringing to his move to America where he worked and lived from then on. It is a fascinating look at a man who mixed with some of the highest profile society ladies of the 40s and 50s, was friends with Cecil Beaton (who took many of the photos included in the book of his creations) and yet was continually frustrated by the lack of recognition and celebration of his work that he experienced.
It is hard to see why he is not more well known when seeing the clothes included in the exhibition and how brilliantly they were constructed. In the book, there are many pictures of the garments themselves, sketches and publicity photos. Close-ups of the tailoring make it possible to examine the fine details of the clothes that you couldn't do when at the exhibition. The descriptions of each garment also goes into detail about its characteristics and why the shape was chosen. Some of the finer details, such as the pattern piecing, serves to reinforce what a genius Charles James was in pattern cutting and assembly.
There is a chapter on Architectural Shaping relating to his post-war work on ballgowns. This looks more closely at how the garments were constructed and deviated from his contemporaries in approach. The construction of each dress is explained and photographed from different angles to illustrate this. Some of the dresses are breathtaking to behold, such as the Swan, Tulip and Umbrella Ball Gowns.
A favourite section of the book was the one that came at the end, and entitled Inherent Vice. In working in such innovative and experimental ways, Charles James's garments have become victims of their own success, whereby the deviation from the usual techniques and fabrics of the time have led to their deterioration at a faster rate. It is a very interesting introduction to the restoration and maintenance of clothes of past ages, the causes of some common problems, and how the conservators at the Museums Costume Institute deal with these problems. I particularly enjoyed this section as I had never considered the conservation of fashion garments before, and to see pictures of the damage that some pieces have suffered, was very illuminating.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of beautiful clothes, especially those who are interested in unusual methods of construction. It really made me think about new approaches to making clothes and find a new respect for those designers that push the boat out and embrace their intuition in making something totally unique.