The Met's Charles James Exhibit Dissects the Architecture of Couture

The inaugural exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Anna Wintour Costume Center is well worth the trip uptown.
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Eliza Brooke
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The inaugural exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Anna Wintour Costume Center is well worth the trip uptown.
Cecil Beaton's photograph of Charles James's ball gowns for 'Vogue.' Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cecil Beaton's photograph of Charles James's ball gowns for 'Vogue.' Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

While the parade of incredible dresses and bold beauty looks may have stolen the show at the Met Ball on Monday night, let's not forget about the other show that the event kicked off: The museum's retrospective on 20th-century designer Charles James, which opens this Thursday. Spanning two galleries, "Charles James: Beyond Fashion," the Anna Wintour Costume Center's inaugural exhibition, focuses on the architectural nature of James' couture gowns, and it's well worth a visit for anyone with even the slightest interest in fashion history.

Even if you're not familiar with James' name, you've probably seen his work, most likely in Cecil Beaton's 1954 Vogue tableau of eight women wearing the designer's ball gowns in shades of rust, yellow and icy blue. It's the kind of image that makes you sigh and think, "This is what fashion is."

The Met's exhibit takes a more analytical approach to James's body of work, and specifically the construction of each garment. Lights illuminate different portions of a dress, while video screens at the viewer's foot simultaneously roll a digital breakdown of that particular section. A 3D rendering of a dress pieced together with strips of ribbon shows how James created that particular piece. It's clever — not to mention informative — without robbing the dresses of their sumptuous glory.

The show's opening conveniently coincides with reports that Harvey Weinstein is looking to buy the Charles James label and may have plans to revive the fashion house, with wife and Marchesa designer Georgina Chapman on board as a creative consultant.

If those reports are true, you may want to consider your next trip to the Met background research for the label's future.

Click through for a sneak peek at the exhibit and its gorgeous gowns.