The Met’s New Charles James Acquisitions

ball gown by Charles James, 1947, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

This coming summer’s big Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Charles James: Beyond Fashion. It runs from May 8 to August 10, and I can’t wait to see it. James was a brilliant designer, and one of the greatest American couturiers ever.

In 2009, the Brooklyn Museum of Art transferred its entire costume collection to the Met. Along with that transfer came a major archive of James’ work, setting up the Met to mount this major retrospective.

Well recently my research took me into the Met’s online collection database, and I found a ton of James pieces newly acquired by the museum. During 2013, the Met acquired more than 150 pieces, including some early works from the 1930s. Most of these are purchases credited as Costume Institute Benefit Fund, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, and Acquisitions Fund, 2013. There are also a few purchased with funds from individual donors.

Some of these new James acquisitions are stunning. Take a look for yourself.

dress by Charles James, early 1930s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

label in dress by Charles James, early 1930s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

evening jacket by Charles James, 1930s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

evening dress by Charles James, c. 1935, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

cocktail dress by Charles James, early 1950s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

suit by Charles James, 1950s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

dress by Charles James, 1952-53, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

label in dress by Charles James, 1952-53, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

'Butterfly' gown by Charles James, c. 1955, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

I wonder how many of these new pieces will show up in the exhibition this summer.

I’m torn whether or not the Met’s acquisition of so many pieces by James is a good or damaging thing for the field of fashion history. On one hand it creates a really strong collection, and will be amazing for Met fashion historians who want to examine the evolution in James’ design. Hopefully they will publish their findings so that we can all learn from their research.

On the other hand it could make it harder for an outside researcher to examine James garments in person. Conducting research at the Met isn’t possible for just anyone, especially an independent historian or someone at an institution with limited funds. The acquisition of so many pieces by a single institution means that it’s harder for smaller institutions to acquire any James garments for themselves. Plus, there’s no way the Met will be able to show all of these garments in a single exhibition, so many will live in storage unseen by the public.

What do you think about a single institution acquiring so many pieces of a designer’s work? And are you excited to see the exhibition this summer?


  1. I’m excited to see this exhibit when I’m in NYC in May. I’ve begun making my list of where to go including a private tour of the Donald Judd studio in Soho.

    As to the Met owning most of any one collection, if it results in limited access for research, that’s not good. We all needs variety of opinions and voices from a range of institutions to keep the conversation fresh.

    • jacqueline says:

      You can get a private tour of Donald Judd’s studio?! Do you have any idea the level of excitement I have right now?!

      I agree that variety of opinions and voices leads to the freshest research. I think there is so much to be learned from James’ work that I hate to see it shut away with access only for a few.

  2. jacqueline says:

    I should note that I don’t begrudge the Met their right to acquire so many James pieces nor am I saying that the super collection they are creating will necessarily limit access.

    Consider the researcher coming from out of town — first, having such a big archive of James’ work in one place means s/he won’t have to travel all over the country, from museum to museum. That’s a pro. Plus the Met is great about getting much of their collection up in the online database, so it’s easy to browse through it at a researcher’s home location.

    But the research request s/he would need to submit to the Met for an in-person appointment would be colossal. Multiple people would need to assist that researcher to retrieve and store garments, stay with the researcher for safety and security, etc. If something big (say a blockbuster fashion exhibition) is coming up in the Costume Institute, the museum won’t be able to divert multiple people to help an outside researcher. Plus with an archive that big, a researcher would need multiple days to study the collection, again imposing a big burden on the collecting institution. I just hope the Met is able to accommodate a researcher for multiple days if s/he wants to examine a large portion of the James archive.

  3. Trillium says:

    What does the ‘W.I.’ stand for on the label? West Indies?

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