The art of the seam: Charles James at the Met

When is a stitch more than just a stitch? What distinguishes craftsmanship from manufacturing? Merida took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to catch the Charles James retrospective, Beyond Fashion—and found design inspiration in the couturier’s masterful needlework and passion for beautiful and inventive fashion design.

Metropolitan Museum of Art / Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine

World-renowned couturier Charles James created artwork in the form of stunning ball gowns, dresses, and other garments in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Combined with drawing, sculpture, writing, and engineering work, the gowns and dresses reveal the breadth and depth of James’ talents. Each piece was carefully crafted and considered for each customer. No two ball gowns are identical, each a reflection of a client’s unique personality and physical makeup.

James took couture tailoring and design to another level. We were struck by James’ ability to boil complex engineering problems down to just a few shapes and seams. A close look at any of the gowns reveals layers, folds, bunches, tucks, structure, and stitches that work together in a masterful way. He not only dreamed up the stunning aesthetic but engineered the complex architecture to bring it to life. One of his most famous gowns balances a nearly 10-lb, voluminous, clover-shaped skirt on the waist to allow for maximum mobility and grace. One James quote reads, “In fashion, even what is most fragile must be built on cement.”

"Clover Leaf," 1953 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tracing a single seam that wrapped around and up the length of one particular gown brings the master’s hand into sharp focus. Our lead craftsman, Chan Pao, was awestruck at James’ ability to get the fabric to lie flat on either side of the seam, despite the seam’s length and complexity. James said, “I have sometimes spent twelve hours working on one seam; utterly entranced and not hungry or tired till finally it had as if of its own will found the precise place where it should be placed.” A single stitch, repeated by the hands of a skilled perfectionist, is far more than a stitch. It is part of a masterful seam and an elegant work of art.

Charles James: Beyond Fashion is exhibiting at the Met until August 10th.


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