Friday, 12 September 2014

Charles James: Beyond Fashion catalogue review

Charles James: Beyond Fashion
Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
ISBN 978-0-300-20436-0

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.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Charles James Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

I was lucky enough to go to New York earlier in the year, and as a special treat, I was allowed to go the Charles James exhibition sans children.

The exhibition was opened in the new Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the Museum, and what better way to debut a new space, than by having a plethora of beautiful gowns and exquisite tailoring.

Charles James was an Anglo-American dress, described as America’s first couturier, and his work in the 1940s and 1950s was sought after by prominent society ladies and high profile figures. 

Not having had any formal training, his work came from his eye for creating beautifully sculptured pieces from unconventional pattern cutting.

The exhibition took place in several locations in the museum and although you had to navigate through several museum halls to get there, it was worth it for each room had its own bonuses.  

The exhibition was set up so that the garments had accompanying videos playing on screens at the side of either individual gowns or clusters of garments.  These videos were what really brought the exhibition to life, as there was a short animation of each piece, taking you through the process of how it was made.  It was a much cleverer and clearer way of showing this as you could see the finished garment deconstructed into flat pattern pieces which once they were all displayed, were then reformed back into the garment in the order in which they would have been sewn.  You could understand the amazing innovation and genius of Charles James in being able to see how these odd-shaped patterns (for the most part) fitted together in extraordinary ways and produced perfectly fitting gowns and coats and suits.  The latter were exhibited together, so each set of videos related to a small collection, but with the gowns, each one was set up for a more in-depth examination.

The gowns were of more complex construction, and each gown was set up with its own camera, which scanned its length and a video was projected of the image building up.  Once this was done, the 3-D image of the entire gown was shown which was then deconstructed so that each stage of creation could be seen.  It was amazing to see the more complicated processes in creating these pieces, and seeing how the addition of weights and boning creating line and shape (all unseen beneath the finished dress).  Photographs of the dresses being worn by the rich and famous taken by Cecil Beaton were also displayed.

One of the most beautifully constructed dresses was the Clover Leaf gown, with a beautiful lace embellishment that covered the skirt and reach up and around the bodice.  A detailed examination of how the shape was conceived and executed could be seen and the work that had gone into the creation of such a splendid gown, considered by James as the culmination of his career, could be marvelled at.

For anyone interested in pattern cutting and dressmaking, the exhibition was like the Mother Ship calling you home.  Accompanied by a weighty coffee table book which I will review tomorrow you could take in the splendour of fashion of a bygone era and immerse yourself in how wonderful clothes can be.

All photographs reproduced with kind permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.