An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looks at a popular form through a new lens.

Photo © Architectural Record
For this particular gown, James layered brown and purple tulle to create depth of color and an iridescent sheen.
DS+R used handheld 3-D scanners to translate James’s dresses, such as the the Butterfly Ball Gown, into digital models.

“In fashion, even what seems most fragile must be built on cement.”

These fitting words came from Charles James (1906–78), a designer who was part engineer, part sculptor, and, above all else, an architect of fabric. Like many great buildings, his sartorial creations possess striking outward beauty and a deeply embedded philosophy of craftsmanship: James said he once spent 12 hours on a single seam. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York decided to mount a major exhibition of James's work (Charles James: Beyond Fashion, running through August 10), the challenge facing its Costume Institute was clear: how to communicate the singular attributes of his work to the general public.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, James, a self-taught Anglo-American, designed couture for arbiters of taste such as Dominique de Menil, Millicent Rogers, and Austine Hearst, along with ready-to-wear for a larger audience. He did receive some architectural training from his brief stint in the architecture department of a large Chicago utilities company in 1924. James played with conventional seaming, used fabrics as structural elements, and constructed metal support systems, all concealed under a vibrant selection of colors, textures, and patterns—an architectural approach achieved with technical brilliance. Consequently, curators Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder sought to enlist exhibition designers who could understand the unusual complexity of his work. They selected the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) known for unconventional exhibitions—most recently their design for The Art of Scent: 1889–2012 at the Museum of Arts and Design, in New York, in the winter of 2012–13.

“We started off knowing very little about James's dresses,” said DS+R principal Liz Diller. The secrets of the garments' construction were unveiled by the analytical tools of the museum's conservation department—X-ray imaging showed the dresses' underlying structure, while microscopy further revealed material properties. The architects realized that the Met's clinical instruments could help the exhibition's visitors appreciate James's skill. “While these tools were available for the conservators, bringing that fascinating information to the public isn't something the curators had previously considered,” Diller said. Digital animations, composed principally using 3ds Max and After Effects, could show a deconstruction of the design and craft of a dress: how its fabric—James's ball gowns used a luxurious abundance of silk, taffeta, or satin—was structured to embrace the female form and create the desired effects of billowing and draping. The dresses would, in essence, be seen as small works of architecture.

Unfortunately, the show had to be split into two gallery spaces that are far apart in the museum. Fifteen of James's ball gowns are in the Special Exhibition Galleries on the main floor, off the Greek and Roman wing, while other dresses, coats, and archival material are shown in the Anna Wintour Costume Center on the lower level. On the main floor, visitors entering the gallery are greeted by all 15 dresses elevated on platforms, facing forward, and as brightly illuminated as the conservators allowed. “Just simply the gowns, unadulterated but beautifully lit,” Diller states, though there has been criticism that the galleries were gloomy. Hidden from that first glimpse of the dresses are robotic armatures and small display monitors for each gown. These are the exhibition's storytellers.

Each monitor shows an animated three-dimensional digital model of the garment, which is manipulated, taken apart, and analyzed. Most of the robotic armatures, mounted with a focused light, coordinate their movement with the animation to highlight relevant parts of the gown. The Clover Leaf Ball Gown (1953), for example, is an intense study in fabric strategy: the animation dissects the gown's black-and-white satin, faille, and velvet composition, then explodes its form into two-dimensional curved surfaces, reassembles the dress, zooms into each section's woven construction, performs a live section of the cloverleaf form, and finishes with a view in elevation and plan. As the focus light of the armature glides along the gown's surface, it is synchronized with the animation's virtual cuts into the gown's layers. DS+R's architectural approach is evident: the animations use plans, sections, elevations, and details to construct the sartorial narratives.

The lower-level gallery space continues the themes and strategies of the main floor with similar tools. Robotic boom-arms, essentially larger versions of the smaller robotic arms upstairs, are mounted with cameras that dynamically move around dresses, coats, and suits to capture the minute details, textures, and colors of their fabric. Wall projectors show the camera's prerecorded imagery as well as additional animations. While one projection enlarges the dark blue-black contours of a dress to the height of an entire wall, amplifying its fine gradients of shadow and sheen, another projection analyzes the layers of green-gray silk satin in Figure-Eight Evening Dress (1939) with X-ray imagery.

The subdued black or mirrored walls throughout the exhibition are meant to foreground the vibrant colors and rich fabric of the dresses and mentally transport visitors from the museum: the playful reflection of the gowns' red, cream, pink, and green colors among the gallery's surfaces contrasts with the starkly classical halls outside.

But, most of all, it's the architectural eye that unlocks the secrets of the garments and reveals their brilliance. The exhibition teaches visitors to look at nonarchitectural objects through the eyes of an artist and engineer. Sections and details are paired with visual and structural analysis to give a substantive lesson in what it means to think and visualize the world architecturally. If a dress can be thought of in plan or a fabric understood as having unique material intelligence, then surely other objects or disciplines could yield new insights if analyzed from a similar perspective. This exhibition explores the work of a fashion designer who thought like an architect to make architectural thinkers out of a wider public.