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Underneath It All

After a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, Charles James surfaces at the National Arts Club

“The Einstein of fashion,” “the world’s best and only dressmaker” and “poetry”—these are a few of the phrases used to describe the late designer, Charles James, and his cutting-edge fashions. Yet almost three decades after his death, James—who was earlier this year the subject of a retrospective at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum—is often overlooked in the fashion world. Beginning September 29, however, fans and newcomers alike are able to get a glimpse at the man underneath the clothes at New York City’s National Arts Club when the otherwise private location opens its doors to the public for the dedicated exhibition, Charles James: Beneath the Dress.

The free, weeklong mixed media exhibition will showcase sixty of James’ never-before-seen fashion and erotic drawings, photographs and memorabilia from the private collection of a longtime friend.

Three versions of bubble top, blue marker, red, and brown grease pencil on paper, 1970

Three versions of bubble top, blue marker, red, and brown grease pencil on paper, 1970

The sketches, many of which were rendered in pens, markers and pastels, can be traced back to the 1960s. During an era of sexual freedom, a repressed James began drawing provocative images as a rebellion against his father, who forbade him a relationship with his family because of his homosexuality, as well as a form of expression. “This show will expose a side of the legendary designer that is not often seen by anyone,” says the National Arts Club’s Dianne B. Bernard. “You’ll see the personality and character of the man.”

Many of the fashion drawings later found life in intricately constructed gowns (think plunging necklines, hourglass waists, full skirts and structured bodies), tops and jackets that skirt the line between scandalous and haute couture. The designer, who is regarded as America’s first courtier, also dressed ladies of high status—Millicent Rogers, Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Vanderbilt, to name a few. “He knew each curve and muscle and movement and proportion, every body part under the dress,” adds Bernard. “When the viewer walks into the exhibition, they won’t see it as erotic art from a distance. They’ll see it as beautifully executed contemporary or abstract art.”

A documentary depicting rare interviews with James from the 1970s will run on a loop, while a selection of photographer Anton Perich’s vintage snapshots of James in the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived briefly, will also be on display.

“One thing that’s important to note is that this exhibition is about Charles James, the fashion designer, but it’s also about Charles James, the graphic artist,” says Bernard. “There’s no question Charles James was one of the most important fashion designers of the 20th century.”