"Charles who?" was the general reaction when the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that its next fashion exhibition, opening May 8, would be Charles James: Beyond Fashion. No, the designer, who worked from the twenties through his death in the seventies, is not as infamous as the punks or as well known as McQueen—but he's no less important, fascinating, or even exciting. James, a flamboyant character who, born in England, spent his most productive years in New York, was, along with Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, one of the most forward-thinking, innovative designers of his time. You have him to thank for the cupless bra, the puffer coat, and that zipper in the back of your evening gown. The designer was best known as a master of sculpture—instead of fitting to a mannequin, he would craft epic forms, inspired by his background in millinery and architecture, and structure his gowns around them. "You went into Charles James deformed, and you came out a Venus de Milo," the New York Times' Bill Cunningham, one of James' great friends, told Interview magazine in 1992. But that's not to say James wasn't a master of comfort, too—just look at his fluid Taxi dress, which was engineered for ease.
He was a pretty cool—if not eccentric—cat, too. After he fell into financial ruin (a running theme throughout his career), he lived at the Hotel Chelsea. He was besties with Cecil Beaton from youth; dressed Schiaparelli and Chanel; managed to build (and, thanks to his hot temper, destroy) relationships with the likes of Diana Vreeland and Roy Halston; kicked it with Andy Warhol; and once wore a giant sombrero to Studio 54.
So why isn't the world already acquainted with Charles James? "Because he was nuts!" offers fashion historian and the curator of the Museum at FIT, Dr. Valerie Steele. "He was a complete failure in economic terms. I mean, he made only a handful of dresses, and there are no perfumes associated with his name. The company's been extinct for years. People have really only heard of designers whose houses continue to exist." To that point, James is accused of being somewhat of a con man in his later years. One of his former assistants claimed James sold the same coat a number of times, always promising he'd return it to the previous owner, before eventually selling it to the V&A. Sly fox, no?
James died in 1978, with his final assistant, Homer Layne, by his side. And while his story is not one that's often told, it's indeed one worth telling. Charles James: Beyond Fashion curator Harold Koda notes that there's much to take away from James' legacy. But most of all, it's the fact that "making a dress can be art. [Viewers] are going to leave with that."
Without further ado, here is your cheat sheet to the genius who was Charles James. After reading our A to Z guide, you'll be able to walk through the exhibition with an expert's eye.