A Cecil Beaton portrait for Vogue in 1948 of models wearing Charles James gowns
A Cecil Beaton portrait for Vogue in 1948 of models wearing Charles James gowns © Cecil Beaton/Vogue/Condé Nast Archive

In a fashion volte-face from last year’s punk-inspired event, Monday’s Costume Institute ball at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will celebrate the elegant ball gowns of designer Charles James.

As celebrities mount the steps of the Met, kicking off the social benefit season, all eyes will be on their sartorial choices. The event brings together the great and the good from the worlds of fashion, film, finance and politics, and vies with the red carpet at the Oscars as a fashion highlight of the year.

This year’s outfits have been inspired by James, the British-born American couturier whose work is being showcased at a Met exhibition, Beyond Fashion. Though he died in 1978, his revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring continue to influence designers today, including Christian Dior’s New Look. Yet James is little known outside fashion circles. “Charles James is the greatest 20th-century fashion designer no one has ever heard of,” says Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large for US Vogue.

The dress code for this year’s ball – white tie for men and ball gowns for women – could hardly be more different from last year’s exhibition and ball celebrating punk, when many attendees rocked the rebel look, from Madonna’s derrière-revealing number to Miley Cyrus in Marc Jacobs’ mesh column dress.

The contrast between then and now is impossible to ignore at an occasion that is all about being seen and making a statement. Rebecca Arnold, lecturer in history of dress and textiles at the Courtauld Institute of Art, says: “Making an entrance on the red carpet has become the most important thing. It is all about the spectacle of being revealed.”

So, how exactly will the glamorous gowns be received? Ball gowns, after all, are not simply big dresses – they come with big, and complex, associations. Will Monday’s lavish confections serve as an us-and-them statement about those who have recovered from the recession, and those who have not? Will they be seen as simply another turn of the fashion trend cycle? Or will they herald a return to elegance and formality on a broader scale that will filter down to high street and high life alike, marking the true end of the casual Friday era?

There was a time when ball gowns would only be seen by a rarefied section of society. Indeed, except for the occasional Cecil Beaton photograph for Vogue of Charles James’ elaborately constructed ball gowns of the 1940s and 1950s, few at the time would have had the chance to see his creations for wealthy New York clients, such as socialite Babe Paley and Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers.

A relentless perfectionist, James died penniless, having produced less than a thousand garments over a 50-year career. “He was an artist who pursued the holy grail of a perfectly made outfit,” says Harold Koda, curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute. “He dedicated his life to the dresses – to the sacrifice of his financial success and personal relationships.”

Though the ball gown is no longer a standard part of many catwalk collections, it has not disappeared entirely. Koda points to the fact that the traditional wedding gown finale to a fashion show has largely been replaced by one with elaborate evening gowns.

“The ball gown finale acts as a welcome dessert. There are only very few occasions to wear them but they inspire a dream of beauty,” he says.

Ball gowns by Oscar de la Renta autumn/winter 2014; Giambattista Valli and Ralph & Russo, both couture spring/summer 2014
Ball gowns by Oscar de la Renta autumn/winter 2014; Giambattista Valli and Ralph & Russo, both couture spring/summer 2014 © Catwalking

For Oscar de la Renta, whose autumn collection ended in a succession of romantically exuberant evening dresses starting from £4,500, the ball gown has been a constant in his work since he was an intern for Balenciaga in the 1950s. “They’ve always been a part of my understanding of how to dress a woman,” he says. As co-chairman of the Met Ball’s event committee, he declined to reveal who he will be dressing on Monday, although it is rumoured he is creating gowns for as many as 15 women, including some A-listers. Some designer-celebrity pairings have been revealed, though, with the Hollywood Reporter saying that Lupita Nyong’o and Michelle Dockery will be dressed by Prada; Amanda Seyfried by Givenchy; Taylor Swift by J Mendel; Margot Robbie by Diane von Furstenberg and Zooey Deschanel by Tommy Hilfiger.

Describing ball gowns as “fashion as excess”, Rebecca Arnold says they have historically been considered the ultimate status symbol. In spite of their traditionally elitist associations, however, ball gowns today are as much associated with celebrities as political royalty, and have become the ultimate fashion statement – something to which everyone can aspire. “We can all imagine what it’s like to wear a ball gown in our fantasy life,” says Koda.

Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, points to the evolution of Le Bal des Débutantes in Paris, the annual social event in Paris.

Originally created in 1992 by publicist Ophélie Renouard to promote the French couture houses, it has become a grand-scale media event with an international mix of young women from celebrity, society and political families. “The way celebrity culture has infused high fashion culture feeds the aspirational appetite of the media consumer,” she says.

“Today ball gowns are not so much for the rich as for the famous,” says de la Renta. “For a lot of these young girls, it’s something new and, therefore, appealing.”

Georgina Chapman, co-creator of Marchesa and a longtime fan of Charles James’ creations, says: “There has been a noticeable uptick in the past several years for specialised and even custom ball gowns.”

Bergdorf Goodman is getting in on the act too, offering its own special collection of fancy frocks to celebrate the exhibition. The department store has commissioned seven designers, including Rodarte, Giambattista Valli and Mary Katrantzou to create James-inspired, one-of-a-kind pieces that will be displayed in its prime Fifth Avenue windows for a fortnight from May 5, after which they will be available to buy. They won’t be cheap. Worn by a pop star or actress, a ball gown may seem more accessible than in days of old but “it’s just become rarefied in a different way”, says Arnold.

For his part, de la Renta, hopes ball gowns will only increase in popularity as a new generation falls in love with them. “ I always sell ball gowns very well and am making so many for this event that I hope it will become a trend,” he says. “There’s a drama about them that a simple dress does not have.”

Still, with many of his clients new to the form and requesting a train for Monday’s event, he recommends putting in some walking practice first. “You just have to try not to trip on the stairs,” he says.

‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion’ is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 8 to August 10, metmuseum.org





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