A fashionable crowd is swooning over a model wearing a dress weighing 10 pounds. Elettra Wiedemann, the daughter of Isabella Rossellini, is parading a replica of Charles James' famed "Clover Leaf" ball gown, a sculptural masterpiece that is considered to be an icon of mid-century couture.

We are in the newly named Anna Wintour Costume Centre in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, for a preview of the upcoming exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion. Opening in May, the exhibition will examine the career and work of the 20th-century designer who created glamorous and revolutionary ball gowns for New York society women in the 1940s and 50s. And while James' name may not be as well-known as those who have previously had their work celebrated at The Met (Alexander McQueen, Miuccia Prada, Schiaparelli, Chanel, Poiret), his influence on fashion is important. Harold Koda, the charming curator-in-charge of The Costume Institute, credits him with creating design techniques that designers continue to use today: poufs, body-hugging sheaths, figure-eight skirts, ribbon capes and dresses, and more.

At the early morning presentation during New York Fashion Week, Koda explained to a small crowd - including Aerin Lauder, Suzy Menkes, Andre Leon Talley and the centre's namesake Anna Wintour, resplendent in a fur coat and perfectly coiffed bob - that the exhibition will be an opportunity to readdress the awareness of the "underappreciated designer".

"It's time to readdress the public perception of this great man."


Outlining the glamour and beauty of the Charles James gowns that will be presented at the exhibition is a story Koda came across during his research. At an earlier retrospective of James' work in 1982, there was a small fashion show. "The curator approached one of the teenage models, who was small enough to fit into one of these magnificent dresses, and she said, 'I will never wear one of these gowns, what does it feel like to wear it?' The young girl answered, 'It feels like a lesson in beauty'."

Charles James: Beyond Fashion opens at the Costume Institute's Anna Wintour Costume Centre in New York on May 8.