Charles James and DSR Weave Technology and Fashion at the Met
This past weekend I visited the ‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion’ exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sponsored by the Costume Institute and designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro (DSR). For those unfamiliar, James was a prominent Anglo-American fashion designer whose career spanned the 1930-70’s. During the 40’s and 50’s in particular, James developed an arsenal of coats, suits, cocktail dresses and ball gowns that ultimately defined his work as spectacularly sublime and formally provocative. His work is best known for its sculptural forms and architectural construction techniques, simple seams and attention to detail. The DSR exhibition aims to emphasize the conceptual intent and construction techniques of each piece using digital animation and architectural drawings.
The exhibition is broken down into two parts: The Anna Wintour Costume Center, on the lower level, gives a chronological sweep of James’ development over 35 years, while the first floor special exhibitions gallery focuses on 15 of his most fantastic ball gowns. While both parts adequately depict the depth of James’ talents, I found the ball gown gallery to be exceptional.
The first floor, a sea of black, disk-like platforms creates a field of James’ most extravagant evening gowns. Each platform presents a single dress, with tilted monitors and cameras mounted on robotic arms located at the rear.
One of my close friends was a lead animator on the project, and narrated in-depth explanations of each garment as we moved through the exhibit. He explained that each animation is meant to describe the primary idea behind specific gowns. Every animation begins with the robotic camera arm performing a ‘scan’ of the dress. This reveals on the monitor below digital models tracing complex boning and fluid seam lines. My favorite part was the way the dresses were deconstructed to convey concept as well as construction technique in true axonometric fashion. Before diving into detail work, the big picture of each piece is explained. For example, one of the more structurally impressive pieces, the “Lampshade” evening gown, boasts a simple fitted bodice and skirt, with a hemisphere-like sheath that blooms at the knee. Conceptually, the volume at the base references the form and structure of a lampshade or umbrella. An x-ray reveals a diagrid of boning beneath layers of fabric that are ruched together along one continuous seam.
View the animation video for Deconstructing Charles James here.
The combination of DSR’s technology and James’ craftsmanship reveals the importance of the relationship between big ideas and meticulous detail work, which is prevalent in both the digital animations and physical garments. Architects and designers alike could stand to learn a great deal from the shows’ content and presentation. More often than not, clear conceptual form work supported by straightforward structure creates the most impactful built form, whether it be an extravagant ball gown or a 50-story skyscraper.