Met’s Costume Institute Gala Goes Very Formal This Year

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Eight models wearing Charles James gowns, in French & Company's 18th century French paneled room circa 1948

Eight models wearing Charles James gowns, in French & Company’s 18th century French paneled room circa 1948

New York—The annual star-studded Costume Institute Gala Benefit is always one of the most talked about fashion events of the year, and tonight’s event is no exception.

This year’s chairs include Aerin Lauder with co-chairs Bradley Cooper, Oscar de la Renta, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, and, of course, Anna Wintour of Vogue.

Sumptuous Style

Last year’s theme was punk but the event kicks off the opening of the new Charles James Exhibition (opening May 8).

The décor for the 2014 Costume Institute Gala Benefit is produced by Raul Avila for the eighth consecutive year. And given James’ expertise in ball gowns, a sumptuous formal retreat into time is the expected theme.  Ticket prices were equally sumptuous, rising to $25,000.

In fact, Wintour’s minions reportedly insisted that gentlemen wear white tie and tails, instead of black tie, much to the chagrin of some attendees. Moreover, given the exclusiveness of the evening, the Met will not livestream the event as in past years.

This event is The Costume Institute’s main source of annual funding for exhibitions, acquisitions, and capital improvements.

“Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching,” said Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute. “He dreamt that his lifetime of personal creative evolution and the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students. In our renovated galleries, we will fulfill his goal and illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math, and science.”

The retrospective exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, features approximately 65 of the most notable designs James produced over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978. The exhibition will be held in the newly refurbished Anna Wintour Costume Center.

Portrait of Charles James by Cecil Beaton (1936)

Portrait of Charles James by Cecil Beaton (1936)

In the first-floor gallery, a replica of James’s sculpture of an idealized female form greets visitors as does a portrait of Millicent Rogers in a James gown, which is on view in the main gallery.

The new Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries explore the span of James’s career. Descending the steps to the new Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, which provides the technology and flexibility to dramatize James’s craft, visitors view a portrait of the designer and hear his voice. 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.

‘Beyond Fashion’

Much of the content in these galleries was transferred to the Met as part of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection in 2009, and was augmented recently with the contents of James’s last studio in the Chelsea Hotel. As a result, the Museum has the most definitive body of James’s work in the world, and the most comprehensive collection of a fashion designer’s work in any museum.

“James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression,” said Jan Glier Reeder, consulting curator. “In fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘…his work went beyond fashion and was a fine art.’” Beyond Fashion was also the title James chose for the autobiography he never completed.

Clover leaf ball gown, 1953

Clover leaf ball gown, 1953

After designing in his native London, and then Paris, James arrived in New York City in 1940. Though he had no formal training, he is arguably one of the greatest designers to have worked in the tradition of the haute couture in America. His fascination with complex cut and seaming led to the creation of key design elements that he updated throughout his career: wrap-over trousers, figure-eight skirts, body-hugging sheaths, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, and poufs.

A book, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, by Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder with a preface by Ralph Rucci and contributions by Costume Institute Conservators Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, accompanies the exhibition. This publication is illustrated with new photography of James designs, including details highlighting the materials, construction and conservation of the pieces, as well as rarely seen vintage photographs

The project is funded by a $10 million gift from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, as well as proceeds raised at the annual Costume Institute Benefit under the leadership of Met Trustee Anna Wintour, and from commitments by Janet and Howard Kagan and the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc.