What about a 3-D printer? The thought kind of darted into mind the other night at the Met Museum while I was wandering through the Charles James show. I felt its inspiring prick right after I put the kibosh on my first thought, which was to step up to one of the items on display, remove it from its mannequin, and just walk out with it. In case you don’t follow fashion, Charles James was a self-absorbed curmudgeon with highfalutin taste who ended up in squalor at the Ansonia Hotel and who, by the bye, happened to be an unparalleled designer of women’s ball gowns, cocktail dresses, and coats in the middle of the 20th century. A spatial visionary, he had a gift for imagining a dress or a cape that simultaneously reads as an architectural construction and functions as a mating call. Well, yes, I know, anyone can do that. But he also had the sitzfleisch to then, personally, spend up to twelve hours at a stretch devising the weird, abstract shapes of fabric that go into a skirt constructed to give the effect of 1000-thread-count sheets foaming on an unmade bed, or a single, serpentine seam to connect a skirt and a bodice so that they reconfigure a torso of a certain age to shed ten pounds and 25 years. A few of his confections can almost stand up by themselves as Modernist sculpture and yet, reportedly, feel no heavier than an eiderdown quilt to wear, even though, by the scale, they may weigh 40 pounds. Some of his presentation pieces are so picturesque that they’re given names: “Swan Dress,” “Cloverleaf Dress.” We’re beyond fashion here; indeed, we’re way beyond dressing for any genre of success: we’re dressing in metaphors of undressing for the wild. This is the poetry of Charles James.
One urban outlier is the “Taxi Dress,” from 1932: a fashionably black, wraparound sausage casing of a garment that attaches with three little pronged thingys at one hip. It was called by James the “Taxi Dress” because it is (theoretically) simple enough that a woman could “get into it” in the back of a taxi. In 1932, he must have meant a Checker Cab. I’ve been in the back seat of a lot of taxis, and, let me tell you, to get into that dress you’ve got to get out of something else. Given the tight space of taxi back seats these days, that transformation would almost certainly necessitate football contact with any seatmate, and the “something else” you’d be most likely to get out of would be any prospect of another date, once the person’s broken bones had mended. Indeed, if anyone reading this has ever actually “gotten into” James’s “Taxi Dress” in the back of a taxi, please let me know, and I’ll send an E-mail blast to all my fashionista friends that yoga really does work. What I’m trying to say is that the art of Charles James—like that of a significant poet in any medium—is not literal. The image of the title “Taxi Dress” does not need to (indeed, may not be able to) be realized in action. It only needs to be envisioned by the potential customer. In his titles for his peerlessly idiosyncratic designs, James proved himself not only an artist of enchanting, impeccably tailored, wearable temples to the erotic but also one of the slyest marketers of his day. One might say that all of his dresses are variations on the same, ur-“Ad Dress.”
Back to the 3-D printer: The Charles James show has taken some hits in the press for being in two parts, both located in the Met’s basement level yet at opposite ends of the museum. Ah, but the method in this madness! To get to the darkened room—maybe ‘cavern’ would be more accurate—where the spectacular ball gowns gleam from the depths like prehistoric sea creatures, one necessarily must pass through the Met’s collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture directly overhead. To get to the crypt with the shimmering cocktail dresses and sculptural coats, one must pass overhead through the Met’s collection of ancient Egyptian art. That is, just in one’s approach to the genius of the man, one is made to see him in the context of the ages, of the standards of art “The Metropolitan Museum of Art” represents. And so, in my transmigration from the mummies to the mannequins, I began thinking about what I’d want my new 3-D printer to print.
You know, these miracle printers can make any New York expedition so much easier. An hour or two before you require an accessory, you just turn on the machine, program it, and, voilà!, it produces a new handbag, a portable house, an AK-47, whatever. From the James show, I’d go with a dolman-sleeve day coat that closes with merely a button or two; that I could “get into” in the back of a taxi.
But why stop there? The Egyptian ladies are all swathed in stony representations of pleated tissue—in prototypes of Fortuny—however, from the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries, how about a print-out of that headless marble statue of Aphrodite in her “Venus Genetrix” incarnation. This breathcatching figure, elevated on a waist-high pedestal, is a first- or second-century Roman copy of a lost, 5th-century B.C. Greek original by Kallimachus. As a copy, it’s not very faithful, which is probably why the Met calls it an “adaptation”: Wikipedia has pictures of several other copies of the lost sculpture, which reside at various museums, and all of them possess the bodies of mature women (“Genetrix” refers to Venus as a maternal figure). Furthermore, the Kallimachus original was apparently bronze and larger-than-life-sized. The Met’s version, rather, offers a relatively petite goddess, just a half inch under five feet tall, who has managed to keep her figure, slender and high-breasted, despite her maternity—a Jean Harlow of the breed. And what is she wearing? Wow! Scholars will try to tell you it’s called a peplos or maybe an Ionic chiton, but I see “Water Dress” by Charles James! From the front, it pours down her body (to “get into” that section, all one needs is a waterfall). From the side, it’s a cool column of half-frozen creases. From the back, it’s the entrance to a ravishing polar enigma, with the marble worked into glaciate planes and folds. The difficult part of the printer’s programming will be reproducing the soft, worn-away texture of the marble, i.e., getting the presence of a couple of millennia into the 3-D copy; but I have no doubt that, as I write, some prodigy is inventing a way to replicate even the handprints of time. Maybe I should also tell the printer to give her a arms and a head—but whose? Perhaps a set from one of the living sconces with glowing eyes in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” film? Wait, the printer seems to be jammed. It didn’t understand my request for the effect of millennia on the marble. If it can’t get that, the creation of a head is certainly going to be an issue. I’ll think about it tomorrow, right after I go through my to-do list. Let’s see what’s on for tomorrow? “Note to self: You must change your life.”
(Charles James: Beyond Fashion through August 10, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)