A Peek into a Costume Collection: Charles James at the Metropolitan Museum

I think you’ll find that I am a bit obsessed with ball gowns.

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Source: Metropolitan Museum http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/81678

Occupational hazard! This one is an iconic Charles James silk and rayon gown from 1953 called the “Clover Leaf” gown because of the flare of the skirt.  As a museum professional, one of the most interesting details about this specific gown is the fact that it was donated in 1953. How interesting that the collections staff at the Met understood that one of their tasks at the Costume Institute would be to collect the finest modern examples of couture fashion!

This other example, the “Four Leaf Clover” was also donated (to the Brooklyn Museum) in 1953 by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. The Metropolitan absorbed the Brooklyn Museum’s collection in 2009.

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Source: Metropolitan Museum http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/159349

There’s something very special about this “Four Leaf Clover” because it is actually not the finished gown—it is a muslin, a practice version of the dress, basically.

James was known for the unique structures and sculptural details used in his gowns. Peeking behind the curtain a bit to see a work in progress gives a very unique view of the designer’s work.

The Met actually has a number of James’ muslins and patterns.  They appear to have HUNDREDS!

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Source: Metropolitan Museum http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/157618

People with a flare for sewing would probably learn so much by studying these patterns and muslins! If only I had an artistic mind instead of one that is so historical!

But that’s one reason decorative arts historians do what they do. I grew up surrounded by fabric, and the crisp starchy smell of my mother’s sewing room has probably always been one of my favorite scents. I love any kind of fiber art and I’m a good knitter, but when it comes to sewing I can just barely sew a button back onto a shirt if I absolutely need to! That’s why I’m here to research clothes—- not to sew them!CI53.73_MM41137