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?