Revisit the World of Charles James’s Opulent Ball Gowns

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Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of ArtPhotograph by Cecil BeatonBeaton / Vogue / Cond? Nast Archive. Copyright ? Cond? Nast

Next month marks the inaugural show at the newly-renovated Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Met: Charles James: Beyond Fashion. The first Costume Institute show not associated with a current design label in some years (James died in 1978), the exhibit, which opens May 8, serves as a retrospective for the man considered to be America’s first couturier — and also, conveniently, the dress code theme for this year’s Met Ball.

Called “the greatest talent of my generation” by Christian Dior, James is known for his opulent, intricate ball gowns — distinguished by their exquisite color sense, unconventional materials, and unprecedented techniques, and widely acknowledged as defining a new standard of mid-century glamour. “Nothing else looked like these designs or has since,” reflects Ralph Rucci in the introduction to the accompanying catalogue, which focuses on James’s iconic creations, such as his signature figure-eight skirt (with fabric curled between the legs) and his “prophetic” eiderdown-filled satin quilted jacket. Click through the slideshow for a first look at the upcoming exhibition — featuring vintage photographs of James’s clients and wife, Nancy, wearing his intricate creations, and photographed by his friend, Cecil Beaton.

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photograph by Cecil Beaton; Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

1948

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photograph by John Rawlings; Rawlings / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

Babe Paley, 1950

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photographer Unknown; © Bettmann/CORBIS/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Austine Hearst Wearing the Leaf Gown, c. 1953

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photograph by Cecil Beaton; The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Nancy James Wearing the Swan Gown, 1955

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photograph by Cecil Beaton; Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

Butterfly Gown, 1954

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photograph by Cecil Beaton; Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast/The Condé Nast Publications

Charles James with Model, 1948

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photograph by Cecil Beaton; The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Charles James, 1952

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Photograph by Cecil Beaton; Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

Charles James, 1936

The World of Charles James’s Opulent Ball Gowns