Beyond Beyond Fashion
There is a trick of my writing teacher: When we finish reading an essay, first he asks: "What is it about?" We answer, then he asks:" If that's not what the essay is about, then what is it about?" So we answer again, striving to squeeze out every drop of intelligence out of our brain cells. Repetitively, after we are willingly tortured by this same question for three more rounds, the essence of the essay shows up. This was exactly the same feeling I received from the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion, displayed by the Costume Institution of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout the exhibition, I was asked this question over and over again: If fashion is not what the exhibition about, then what? Started from May8 and lasting until August 10, the special exhibition of Costume Institute of Metropolitan Museum presents the audience signature pieces of Charles James, an Anglo fashion designer who was active during the post-WW2 20th century in America. The exhibition is held in the special exhibition galleries on the Museum's first floor and The Costume Institute's Anna Wintour Costume Center on the ground floor, including one small adjunct hall showing documents. Fifteen evening ball gowns and about fifty ready-to-wears are displayed.
With intricate costumes, James first of all stood out as a king of fabric sculptor without crown beyond the simple definition of a fashion designer who made clothes that fit in the trend. The costumes were indeed “amazing”---- quoting the most commonly used word of the visitors. James’ original spiral cut, almost seamless design and the free draping technique are still not nearly comparable in the present day. They were not just fashion, but sculptures that go around human body with full artistry and could stand the test of pure aesthetic examination. However, if the costumes were examined even beyond their tags of “fashion” and beyond their sculptural appearances, the intention of these designs was actually in some degree provoking, if we examine the quotes of James that were written on the walls of the halls. A quote of James revealed that his ideal of fashion was largely sexual. “The feminine figure,” he believed, was “intrinsically wrong”. Thereby he claimed, “All my seams have meaning, they emphasize something about the body." In this way, he strived to “perfect” the female body, however destroying the natural beauty of female body at the same time. As a result, the innate motive beyond the fashion appearance of these designs was sexism aesthetics of the traditional malpractice, which should have been eliminated a long time ago. James’ fastidious and male-centric aesthetic of female figure beyond his ability as an artist was further revealed by details in his designs. In the actual practice, James overemphasized the female parts. First, the tops gather into sharp and pointing horn. This design was made possible by darts of the gowns’ tops following the traditional Rococo corset, which once made the teenage girls and young wives’ waistlines tiny but at the same time cruelly took away many of their lives. At the same time, the bottoms of gowns spread widely. Either the gowns had big volume of piled-up drapes on the hip, or they were supported directly by two bustles, which was also a typical classic masculine aesthetic that addressed female’s ability of bearing kids. Overall, James’ costumes remade a women’s body into a funnel shape. In addition, the bosoms were preferably shaped as cones, which presented women lasciviously. Even in the Victorian times, this male-dominant esthetic was highly controversial for these characteristics defined females simply attractive in the way of a reproduction and bearing machine. In the post World War II America, after the liberation of female body brought by the ‘H’ dresses, this Victorian renaissance was a recess that brought female back into the prison of clothes. Rather, in today’s aspect, these aesthetics of female...
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