Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Charles James Exhibit at The Met

I love The Met Ball and every year look forward to the theme and the dresses. But even more than The Met Ball and the amazing fashions, is the fact that the Ball heralds the opening of a new fashion exhibit at The Met.  To me, one of the coolest things about The Metropolitan Museum of Art is The Costume Institute. 

I've tried to see each exhibit as they've come through in the last couple of years but I was really looking forward to the Charles James exhibit because it originally premiered at The Brooklyn Museum.  Honestly, I was just too lazy to truck out to Brooklyn to see it even though I really wanted to!

So I've been planning to see the exhibit since it was announced.  After a few false starts...I should never plan trips after work because I know they are always going to blow up...a friend and I managed to see the exhibit yesterday, since it was my first day of vacation.

I honestly took a deep breathe before walking in...and truthfully the artistic quality of some of those dresses made me tear up. All of the pictures were taken on my iPad because photos were allowed just NO flash photography thus this is a pretty picture intensive post. I've included pics from the exhibit, as well as, from the book from the exhibit, Charles James by Harold Koda and Glier Reeder.  BTW, I bought my copy of the book back in May from Amazon...it's cheaper and you don't have to carry the heavy book around The Met.

I don't have pictures of all the dresses just my favorites.  The exhibit is staged in two parts - one upstairs (the ballgowns) and one downstairs in the actual Costume Institute space (daywear & coats). I liked the ballgowns upstairs best. The daywear and coats are amazing and I've included one from the book that I liked but the dark lighting and the dark coloring of the garments didn't touch me as much emotionally as the ballgowns did. 

The other thing that is absolutely fantastic about the exhibit are the x-ray arms and computer screens that are included in the exhibit. You know how we always go to one of these and lean way too far in trying to see the details and wishing that we could turn the garment inside out to see the inner construction?  Well the genius of this one is that those x-ray arms, show you the innards.  Not only are they pictured, but then the computer gives you a listing of all of the fabrics and notions used in the construction.  AWESOME!

I watched some of those displays several times so that I could get a perfect understanding of what Charles James thought and envisioned to make these amazing dresses.

So here are my favorites...

The Butterly Ballgown:
This dress was made from a brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin and dark brown nylon tulle. The combination of fabrics gave this dress an unusual coloration.

Front - picture lightened to see the detail

I loved the mirrored reflection so that's how I took the picture!

Dress pictured in the Charles James' book

Clover Leaf Ball Gown:
To me this is "the" classic Charles James dress. It is just as beautiful in person as pictured.  Loved the Oscar de la Renta tribute dress that Sarah Jessica Parker wore to this year's Met Ball.

Pleat detail on the hemline

Picture from the book showing the original wearers of the dress ~
Gloria Vanderbilt and Austine Hearst

Ballgown from 1948-1949:
This was a favorite of mine because the computer description said that the dress was used in a Johnson & Johnson Modess sanitary napkin ad which made me laugh. After that I referred to it as "The Sanitary Napkin" dress! Again Charles James used two different fabrics for the dress ~ a silk satin and a silk twill.  This dress must have had amazing movement when the wearer walked.

Picture from the book with Marietta Peabody wearing the gown.

Finally, the lace version of The Clover Leaf Ball Gown:
I know I'm overusing the word awesome in this post but this dress' beauty is just jaw droppingly beautiful.  The dress is made from silk shantung, silk faille and silk satin before the lace is appliqued to the top of the dress. I just couldn't get a picture of the dress I liked so I'm using the one from the book.

...and this one because of the zipper application...

(picture lighted to see the zipper insertion)

There was a discussion about our (home sewists) obsession with getting everything perfect when this zipper so obviously wasn't. It curved with the weight of the fabric ~ which was fine.  

Finally, this was my favorite day dress. Also, taken from the book...

Some other thoughts about the exhibit ~

  • Loved that the walls were mirrored and covered with Charles James quotes.
  • That it was on two floors so that everything wasn't jammed together. Also you also got to stroll through the museum to experience other parts of it.
  • IMHO, it's not an exhibit that you can rush through. Well I suggest that you take your time - so you can enjoy the artistry and ingenuity in each garment.
  • By each part of the exhibit, there was a Met store so that you can purchase not only Charles James memorabilia but there was also a Merchant & Mills sewing book, alongwith sewing supplies labelled with Merchant & Mills logo.

The exhibit closes in 2.5 weeks. If you're going to be in NYC before it closes on August 10th, I highly recommend that you head on over to The Met to experience this exhibit. If you're not going to make it, The Met has a wonderful section on their website with video and audio about the exhibit. So check it out!

It was the perfect way to kick off my vacation! An amazing exhibit, a beautiful day and a wonderful friend who willingly wandered around the museum with me and not just The Charles James Exhibit!  It was a good day!

...as always more later!  


  1. Thank you for this, Carolyn! I still have to hustle my butt over there and time's running out.

  2. The exhibit was definitely amazing. Glad you made the time to go! I think what was most interesting was seeing all of his daywear and coats since he's so famous for his ball gowns. That plaid dolman coat on the lower floor was amazing! Also, his pattern cutting skills were crazy.

  3. Thank you for sharing and for the links, Carolyn. His work is so enchanting. Wish I could go to take it all in.

  4. Looks amazing. If only I was able to make it!

  5. Some absolutely gorgeous dresses. I love the Clover dress, especially with the lace overlay. Can you imagine how many hours went into that dress? Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience, Carolyn! I have been obsessed with this exhibit ever since I heard it was happening. Well, I could no longer stand not getting to see these incredible pieces in person (even if my boss was kind enough to purchase the exhibition book when he went to New York) . . . so I finally bit the bullet, and purchased airplane tickets last night! I am super, super excited!! And now I do not have to be so jealous every time someone posts pictures of the event.

    1. Laura - I'm so happy that you're coming to NYC! You will love the exhibit both sections will thrill you. Do a little fabric shopping while you're here too! BTW, when are you coming?

  7. An inspiring way to begin a vacation!

  8. I saw the Charles James exhibit too and I agree with you - it was awesome! Thanks for sharing the photos.

  9. Oh my! Thank you for sharing!

  10. Sooooo envious! I would love to see this. But thanks for sharing!

  11. Thank you for sharing your pictures, thoughts, and the link about the exhibit. Wow! What a fine exhibit! For those of us who live so far away, I am especially appreciative for your efforts, Carolyn. Thank you.

  12. What fabulous inspiration for your holiday. Enjoy.

  13. Enjoyed your experience and the pics and links!
    Another thanks from those of us who cannot see this in person!

  14. The exhibit was astounding. I was less impressed by the dresses in the Costume Institute, but the gowns were breathtaking. One minor correction: the robotic arms had lights pinpointing the areas of the dress that were being explained on the screen. The one exception was the arm with the camera on it, that delved under the dress to show the crinolines. There were X-rays of the dresses, but the robotic arms weren't taking them. Having gone through radiation treatment, I wouldn't want anyone to think they are getting zapped at the exhibit! :)

    1. Thanks Ann for the clarification! :) It was an amazing exhibit wasn't it!

  15. OK, Carolyn -

    So when I make this fabric shopping trip from South Florida to New York, exactly WHEN should I plan to go? If I'm going to travel that far, I want to get the most bang for my buck. I'd love to see this exhibit. What are the usual dates? What would the estimated 2015 dates be? I am talking with a couple of sewing buddies. We may make a group excursion out of his. Thanks for the info.

    1. Vernelle - the Met exhibits only last for 2-3 months. August 10th is THE last date for this event.

  16. How wonderful to see this amazing exhibition through your eyes! I think that I might need to purchase the book. And that lace overlay clover dress, oh my!

  17. Thanks for sharing this exhibit with these photos!

  18. oh cool!
    thanks for taking pics and sharing! I love that "sanitary napkin dress" especially. but wow. looks like a great exhibit. I love the West Coast but sometimes it sure would be nice to be in NYC! thanks again!

  19. What an amazing exhibit. Love that book!


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