The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute examines the career of legendary twentieth-century Anglo-American couturier Charles James (1906–1978), and is presented in two locations—special exhibition gallerieson the Museum's first floor and The Costume Institute's Anna Wintour Costume Center on the ground floor. It explores James's design process, specifically his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today. The retrospective features approximately sixty-five of the most notable designs James produced over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978.
The first-floor special exhibition galleries spotlight and analyze the resplendent glamour and breathtaking architecture of James's ball gowns. On view are fifteen dramatically lit, iconic James gowns including the "Clover Leaf," "Butterfly," "Tree," and "Swan" from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Analytical animations, text, x-rays, and vintage images tell the story of each gown's intricate construction and history.
The Anna Wintour Costume Center's Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James's craft. A pathway winds around a cruciform platform where the evolution and metamorphosis of James's day and evening wear are explored in four categories: Spirals & Wraps, Drapes & Folds, Platonic Form, and Anatomical Cut. Video animations focused on the most representative examples of his approach are shown on monitors, and live-feed cameras detailing the backs of garments are projected on the walls. The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery displays ephemera from James's life and work, including drawings, pattern pieces, dress forms, jewelry maquettes, scrapbooks, and accessories.
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