With all the fabulous fashion fanfare of last night’s Met Gala most of us are so fixated on the who, what and wear, that it’s easy to forget what it’s all in aid of – the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Centre, which curates an annual mega-exhibit showcasing important historical moment in fashion. Today the Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibit opens to private members (with the public opening on May 8) and highlights the work of the Anglo-American  designer, who is perhaps the most influential couturier you’ve probably never heard of – until now, that is.

This will be the inaugural exhibition held at the newly renovated and renamed Anna Wintour Costume Centre (in honour of her fundraising efforts over the last 16 years), and Ms Wintour’s influence over the ball, exhibit and the industry at large is now more obvious than ever. With this year’s gala tickets being hiked up by US$10,000 to US$25,000, the ‘white tie’ dress code for men and an exhibit celebrating a man who revolutionised ball gowns, it seems  Anna is hoping to revive a very exclusive red carpet glamour in a world where it’s not unusual to see pantless, semi-naked celebs compete to bear all.

Charles James was born in England, in 1906, to a British father and American mother and he spent his early years on both sides of the Atlantic. He boarded at the English Harrow School with Evelyn Waugh and photographer Cecil Beaton. Beaton became a lifelong friend and carefully documented James’ fashion garments. These photographs together with video animations, sketches, pattern pieces, swatches, ephemera, 75 of his most notable designs and partially completed works will make up the exhibit, which covers his career from 1920s until is death in 1978.

Designer Charles James pinning a suit on model (possibly Ricki V

Charles James with Model, 1948
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

At age 19, James went on to attempt a career in fashion by opening a hat store in Chicago under the name Charles Boucheron – his father forbid him using the family because he disapproved of his career path (their relationship soon disintegrated). James was constantly on the move and went off to New York, then London setting up shop in the West End. By 1931 he filed for bankruptcy and headed to Paris to study garment construction. But, as was his nature, he soon tired of the ‘rules’ and arrived in New York in 1940 and began catering to the social elite.

It was during the late 30s and 40s that many of James’ peers began to applaud his sculptural dresses and talent – from Salvador Dali, who described his puffer jacket (yes, he invented that) as the world’s first soft sculpture to Cristóbal Balenciaga who said James was “the only dressmaker who has raised [fashion] from an applied art to a pure art form” and the great Christian Dior who described his work as “poetry” and James as “the greatest talent of my generation.” Even Coco Chanel wore his creations, although she never had to pay for them.

The idea that his work was ‘beyond fashion’ and elevated to art is something not many people would dispute. As Jan Glier Reeder Consulting Curator of the exhibit says: “James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression. In fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘…his work went beyond fashion and was a fine art.’”


From left: ‘Butterfly’ Ball Gown ca. 1955, Evening Dress 1946, ‘Four Leaf Clover’ Evening Dress 1953. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Interestingly James was aware of the future importance of his work –the exhibit’s Curator Harold Koda described him as a “hoarder” because he kept scrapbooks all his life. James even set about convincing his notable clients to donate their gowns to the Brooklyn Museum (its costume collection was acquired by the Met in 2009). The title Beyond Fashion was also the title James chose for the autobiography he never wrote.  

It will be interesting to see how this year’s exhibit together with the gala event will affect the retail fashion industry. Past events such as last year’s Punk: Couture to Chaos and 2008’s Superheroes theme both influenced the ‘fast fashion’ markets. According to Britian’s Guardian newspaper, those in the know are predicting an adoption of long gloves over the forthcoming autumn/winter season. But whatever the ripples are, Charles James and Anna Wintour have left a permanent mark on fashion history.

 Charles James: Beyond Fashion runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 8–August 10, 2014. Visit for more information.

Main image: Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948

Images: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast