The annual blockbuster exhibition mounted by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has become a barometer for forecasting fashion trends. Last year’s Punk: Chaos to Couture, for instance, was impeccably timed to the industry’s turn toward pierced and studded embellishments as well as a new spirit of rebellion in ad campaigns and runway shows.
So as the Met prepares to launch its next extravaganza, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, a look at the career of the British-American ball-gown designer, on May 8, it isn’t surprising that style pundits are postulating that over-the-top evening wear is poised for a comeback. Whether that prediction plays out at spring and summer galas is still to be determined, but there’s no better reference than James for a contemporary revival of fancy dresses.
“He is generally acknowledged to be one of a handful of fashion designers who can be said to have transformed their métier,” Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute, says in a statement about the exhibition. Largely recognized as the architect of modern evening wear, James was famous for designing exquisite gowns that were sparsely embellished, relying on exacting construction that sculpted and reconfigured the female form to make their mark instead.
Among James’s best-known works are his iconic ball gowns, including the legendary clover leaf dress constructed with deep side pleats meant to “lift and aspirate when the wearer danced,” says Koda. That was no small feat considering the dress weighed 10 pounds.
“James was an artist who chose fabric and its relationship to the human body as his medium of expression,” Jan Glier Reeder, consulting curator of the Costume Institute, says in the show notes. “In fact, a devoted James client once said, ‘His work went beyond fashion and was a fine art.’ ”
The notable lineup of women who collected James’s masterpieces included Marlene Dietrich, Gypsy Lee Rose, Babe Paley and Millicent Rogers, but it was the respect of his peers that confirmed his status as one of the 20th century’s top talents. Christian Dior credited James with inspiring his revolutionary New Look collection in 1947 and Cristobal Balenciaga called him the world’s best couturier.
James set the bar high for the evening-wear designers who have followed him. Fabrication, cut and construction continue to be top of mind for the best in the field, but practical considerations also define today’s styles.
“I think many of my customers [still] choose a ball gown for a special occasion because they love the drama and fantasy that come with it,” says designer Monique Lhuillier. “The difference is now a woman has many different styles and fabrics to choose from. [They] have fluidity and functional details like pockets and body-enhancing features that make women feel comfortable yet stylish.”
The drama that Lhuillier refers to is certainly part of the appeal of an evening gown. After all, who can forget Audrey Hepburn’s scene-stealing entrance in Sabrina, draped in a pale, strapless Givenchy with a sweeping train, and the effect it had on William Holden?
“Although few may admit it, stealing the spotlight is a big part of wearing glamorous custom-fitted evening wear,” says Mikael Derderian, designer of the label Mikael D. While his clients go to him for all the usual reasons one seeks out couture – luxury, customized design, exclusivity – there’s also an attraction, he says, to the volume of most ball gowns that they may or may not be conscious of.
“The size of the dress alludes to the high price tag that it comes with due to the amount of fabric and the level of workmanship required to complete it,” Derderian posits. “It makes the final product more expensive and less accessible to the mass consumer, which ultimately raises its value and importance.”
Before we all roll our eyes at the sartorial power plays of the one per cent, however, Derderian adds a caveat: “Contrary to what people might think, many of my customers ask me to reduce volume and the general size of their gowns so that they’re more comfortable for them to move around in.”
Indeed, a quick scan of the room at some of the country’s biggest formal bashes, from fundraising galas to awards ceremonies, suggests that a more streamlined approach is the look of choice among the see-and-be-seen set.
“I usually opt for a more liberal translation of black tie or cocktail attire,” says Amanda Blakley, co-founder of The Society culture club. A fixture on the social scene, Blakley says that anything goes at a formal event these days: “I love seeing a woman pull off a pantsuit or one-piece jumpsuit. You can wear anything as long as you sport it with confidence.”
Were he around to dress millennial socialites, though, James might suggest that gowns are deserving of a little more credit. As a young model once said after donning one of his creations, “the dress is teaching me how to stand and how to walk. It’s a lesson in beauty.”