Many years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the house Philip Johnson had designed in 1949 for the de Menil family in Houston. What really astounded me within this essay in modernist reduction was the interior design. I was not expecting walls of colors that approached mauve or some other purplish blend I couldn’t describe, curtains that shimmered in their steel frames, and furniture, obviously designed for the house, which abstracted both the body of the person sitting on it and the grand traditions of “the Louis” into a Baroqueness that was both refined and slightly surreal.
The designer, I found out, was Charles James. I vaguely recognized that name as the hero of the last gasp of grandeur in couture, the man who clothed the likes of Babe Paley, various Hearsts, Mellons, and British aristocrats, and figured in Cecil Beaton fashion shoots. Now the Metropolitan Museum of Art has corrected—and confirmed—my biases while giving this somewhat tragic figure the kind of grand retrospective he deserves. They also put him in place, both socially and technologically.
The exhibition shows that James was two things: the man who brought the notion of the grand evening dress back as a place of creativity, while also taking it to its logical conclusion; and one of the last truly great architects of cut, who could make drapes and folds of what would seem to be nothing more than soft fabric turned into shapes that billowed, bulged, and dissected the wearer’s body.
His “Clover Leaf” ball gown (1953) is his tour-de-force: it descends from a tight bosom into four equal billows, each of which extends the wearer’s stature and lets her command space all around what had to be her statuesque stature. The “Swan” and “Butterfly” gowns, from the same period, are only slightly less monumental: The latter’s asymmetrical bustle emerges from a bodice whose waves emphasize the body’s shape and every motion, while the former marries the “Clover Leaf” and the “Butterfly” into something gauzier and shorter—something you can almost imagine wearing.
That was James’s other achievement: In addition to the set pieces that were the true modern continuations of a lineage that went back to the Versailles’s court and Wirth’s shop, he made dresses and coats for modern women. An austere 1956 dinner coat contains the body in simple forms, but his 1958 Cocoon coat uses drape and geometry to transform a woman’s body into a constructivist actor in a drama set in glass in steel surroundings.
The Met shows us how James created these paeans to endurance of class distinction, female beauty, and elite grandeur, serviced by consummate craftsmanship, while finding a way to make them modernist, which is to say representing the modern world in which they were worn. He not only predated Postmodernism by several decades, but did it with an elegance and grace that makes you sigh when you turn, for instance, to Philip Johnson’s own attempt to abstract and update classical grandeur in the apartment building that faces the museum’s entrance.
As a final treat, the Charles James exhibition was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and they apparently had an unlimited budget with which to encase these objects in glass and theatrical lighting. Their tour-de-force is the room where the ball gowns are on display. Each sits on its own pedestal, with a camera on a robotic arm swiveling around, above, and under each dress. On a display screen you see it trace the seams and folds or dive down to show the inner architecture hiding under those bustles. These anti-paparazzi reveal not the image of glamor, but how it is actually done, and Charles James could do it better than anyone else.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.