MASTERPIECE THEATER:
The Artist’s Way

On the occasion of a groundbreaking exhibition about designer Charles James, Hue celebrates FIT alumni who help The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute present influential costume shows

Behind the scenes of the Charles James: Beyond Fashion, with the show’s  co-curator, Jan Glier Reeder, Museum Studies: Costume and Textiles ’87

No designer in fashion history was more exacting, outrageous, or quixotic than Charles James (1906-1978). He created the most avant-garde, highly engineered garments of his day, including a ball gown with an imposing, cloverleaf-shaped skirt, and a prototypical wrap dress; his quilted evening jacket, a forerunner of today’s “puffer” ski parka, was called “soft sculpture” by Salvador Dalí. He had the most elite clientele—performer Gypsy Rose Lee, and society doyennes Babe Paley, Millicent Rodgers, and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr.—women who not only paid his exorbitant prices, but understood that they were buying (and wearing) works of fine art. He had an extremely high-strung temperament—suicide attempts, drug addiction, legendary tantrums. More than any other American designer of the time, he maintained the impossibly high standards of haute couture, sometimes to a client’s detriment: “He was once hired to make a maternity gown,” says Jan Glier Reeder ’87. “He kept reworking it, and each time his assistant increased the ‘bump’ a little more. By the time he was finished, the client already had the baby.”

Portrait by Cecil Beaton. Balenciaga called James “not only the greatest American couturier, but the world’s best,” and Dior credited him with inspiring the New Look, yet he remains comparatively obscure.

Portrait by Cecil Beaton. Balenciaga called James “not only the greatest American couturier, but the world’s best,” and Dior credited him with inspiring the New Look, yet he remains comparatively obscure.

James exhibitions are catnip for fashion fans, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has mounted a knockout, featuring 65 of his designs, on view until August 10. Reeder co-curated the show with Harold Koda, the institute’s curator in charge, and they co-authored the catalogue—a sumptuous coffee-table book. (Koda co-curated shows at The Museum at FIT with Richard Martin in the ’80s and ’90s.) Ralph Rucci, Fashion Design ’80, perhaps the only American designer whose work could be compared to James’s, contributed an introduction to the book, and Sarah Scaturro ’10 and Glenn Petersen ’91 wrote a chapter on the challenges of conserving James.
Reeder already knew James’s reputation when, in 2008, the Met hired her to photograph, catalogue, and assess the 25,000-piece Brooklyn Museum costume collection. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Brooklyn Museum had a program that supported industrial and fashion design through education and a lending library. James loved that, so he donated many of his most important pieces to the museum, and Reeder was able to study them up close. She devoted a chapter to
James in her book High Style. The collection now resides at the Met, though it maintains a separate identity; Reeder’s job title is consulting curator for the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
James grew up in England and worked in Paris and London before setting up shop in New York, but little of his early career was known. In 2011, Reeder traveled to England, first to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where she found a cache of intimate letters from James to a design assistant; she also visited Birr Castle in County Offaly, Ireland, to see James designs that were worn by Princess Margaret’s mother-in-law.

Not all of James’s garments were voluminous and architectural. His “Taxi” dress of 1932 in black wool ribbed knit prefigured the modern wrap dress; it was so named because its simplicity would allow the wearer to put it on (or remove it) in a taxi.

Not all of James’s garments were voluminous and architectural. His “Taxi” dress of 1932 in black wool ribbed knit prefigured the modern wrap dress; it was so named because its simplicity would allow the wearer to put it on (or remove it) in a taxi.

“The family still lives there,” Reeder says. “I worked in the children’s nursery. I was able to look at the garments to my heart’s delight. That’s what inspires me—to start research with objects and then go outward from there.” Three of those pieces ended up in the show, as well as rare, important early garments contributed by James’s last assistant, Homer Layne. The New Yorker called Reeder’s carefully researched catalogue essay “the first reliable chronology of the life and the work” of the couturier.
Reeder was startled to discover how sloppy James could be. “It was always said that he was a perfectionist, but his clothes—especially the early pieces—are kind of a mess inside,” she says. “He doesn’t care about how wonky the zippers look, and the insides look a little crazy and cobbled together. It wasn’t the perfectionism of couture technique; it was the perfectionism of whatever concept he was trying to resolve.”
If you go to the show, Reeder says, pay particular attention to the waistlines. “Note how the seaming is related to the curves of the body. He never makes a garment with a horizontal waist, which is how all [ordinary] garments are made. He said the waist is a series of measurements, so he did a lot of very interesting and intricate cuts.”
One particular challenge Koda and Reeder faced was the scope of the exhibition, which covers James’s entire career; they divided it into themes that correspond with the designer’s construction techniques: Spirals and Wraps, Drapes and Folds, Platonic Form, and Anatomical Cut. The curators also wanted viewers to have a 360-degree view of James’s biomorphic fashions, often as impressive from the back as from the front. In the end, they devoted a room to his most spectacular gowns, each mounted on a stand-alone platform that viewers can circle. This presentation accentuates the garments’ similarity to fine art. “They’re like sculpture,” Reeder says, “although his clients often said they were surprisingly wearable because they fit so well.” The comparison is apt, she says, partly because of the scientific way James created his garments, so their contours reflect light and shadow, providing miraculous depth to their surfaces.
James’s perfectionism came at a price. He spent his last years bitter and alone in a cluttered apartment at the Chelsea Hotel. One of his last significant friendships was with the legendary, FIT-trained illustrator Antonio, who captured his garments in elemental, black-and-white drawings. When the ambulance arrived to take James tothe hospital for the last time, Reeder writes, the designer kept the attendants waiting while he freshened up his appearance. He told them, “It may not mean anything to you, but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world.” He died the next day.

REEDER ON JAMES, FABRICS, AND HIPS

Ball gown, 1946. Black silk-rayon velvet, red silk satin, brown silk faille,  and black silk crepe.

Ball gown, 1946. Black silk-rayon velvet, red silk satin, brown silk faille,
and black silk crepe.

Reeder finds this dress fascinating for “its sculptural aspect and the way it reconfigures the woman’s body. [It’s] constructed of four different fabrics, each with its own weight, degree of drape, and light-reflective property. When the dress moves, each of these fabrics responds in a different way to the light and the movement, creating
an ever-changing visual experience. The construction defies any usual dressmaking norms—the bulk and the volume are in the front; Surrealist ideation influenced James throughout his career. James was interested in the female body as a vessel of reproduction—accentuating the hips would definitely have that reference of female fertility.His dresses were blatantly erotic.”

THE EDUCATION OF A CURATOR

Jan Reeder 3 MBJan Glier Reeder wound up in the costume field almost by accident. She grew up in a small town in Kentucky and majored in Russian studies at Smith before earning a Master of Social Work from Hunter College. She had raised her children and was working as a social worker when an aunt showed her a trunkful of 1920s dresses from her attic. “They weren’t couture but very ‘high-end,’ with details like a leaping deer in gold sequins,” Reeder says. The garments triggered a long-repressed love of fashion history: “I thought, ‘Where else can I study that except FIT?’” Serendipitously, she contacted the college just as the first class was being assembled for the program now called Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice. Her teachers included Harold Koda, Betty Kirke, Richard Martin, and Valerie Steele. “They worked us from dawn to dusk,” Reeder says. “It was wonderful.”