The Met Gala is hailed as the biggest night in fashion. The gowns! Givenchy! Glamour! Celebs! Last year’s Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibit was so well received by musuem-goers that the Met actually extended the show’s run to a full 100 days (incidentally, Mick Jones of The Clash once said that punk in its purest form only lasted exactly 100 days). The gala itself, which fêtes the exhibit’s opening with a ball attended by celebrities, models and designers before the exhibit opens to the general public, gave us memorable moments such as Gwyneth’s hot pink Valentino gown, Miley Cyrus’ Marc Jacobs net-dress and Madonna’s schoolgirl-gone-bad outfit courtesy Givenchy. The Costume Institute’s next exhibit is sure to be a more formal affair with the announcement today of next year’s theme, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, which will bring a completely different take on fashion to the gala and the exhibit.
“He really is a one-of-a-kind designer,” said Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute to WWD. “Even if you look through the history of French haute couture and all the English couture designers, James stands out as a very idiosyncratic personality and artist and one of the few designers who, in his own lifetime, felt that his work transcended the medium.”
Charles James is credited as being America’s first couturier. Instead of following the traditional fashion calendar, James chose to show his work when he wanted to do so, forgoing fashion trends and other trite details such as seasonality. Though he was born in England, the designer spent most of his time in New York City, where he became known for designing sculpted ball gowns in an array of jewel-toned colors, detailed outerwear and curvilinear, body-skimming column dresses. He was also known for creating elaborate petticoats under each dress, consisting of layers and layers of multi-color tulle to create one-of-a-kind looks. The casual observer wouldn’t even notice the colors, but as the dress’ wearer walked, her heels would kick up a peek of pink, red or gold tulle beneath her elaborate gown. The detail underneath each dress was so elaborate that the Brooklyn Museum, which amassed a huge collection of Charles James’ work before they were donated to the Met Gala, showed a few of them suspended from the ceiling so that visitors could appreciate the swaths of tulle hidden in each dress.
The Beyond Fashion in the exhibition’s title refers to James’ fascination with human anatomy and architecture which he used in the construction and sculpting of each and every gown. The exhibit, which will coincide with the opening of the new Tisch Galleries at the Costume Institute, is also the first to utilize new space at the museum. The upper level will be what Koda describes as an explosion of glamour, where James’ trademark ball gowns will be on display. Downstairs, there will be an emphasis on James’ life, including the years he spent in residence at the Chelsea Hotel.
“There will be the new gallery space, which will focus on describing James’ professional and personal biography, a timeline of his career and how he developed as an artist through to the final years at the Chelsea Hotel, where he had these remarkable collaborations with others and really was serving as a mentor to people,” said Koda.
Charles James: Beyond Fashion is being underwritten by Aerin, the lifestyle brand established by Aerin Lauder as well as Condé Nast. Co-chairs of the event include celebrities Bradley Cooper (previously, Justin Timberlake has held the same position) and Sarah Jessica Parker as well as New York designer Oscar de la Renta, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch as well as Anna Wintour herself. The spotlight was no stranger to James, who often dressed society women such as Millicent Rogers, Austine Hearst and Dominique de Menil in his creations. Fans of fashion history will recognize many of James’ works from photographs taken by Cecil Beaton, who was one of James’ closest friends and oft-photographer of his clientele.
With the Met Gala still eight months away, we hope that the guests are already planning their jewel box inspired outfits — there’s no doubt that Oscar himself will be dressing a coterie of beauties at the gala and that Parker herself will arrive in a scene-stealing look. If the Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibit taught us anything, it’s that the fashion world loves a theme, and with James as a starting point, they have layers and layers of inspiration to draw from.
Images courtesy Getty, WWD