A 1938 black gown in silk faille, one of the first strapless gowns to be made in the 1930s, is called the "Umbrella" evening dress because the folds of its skirt, structured with silk-encased "ribs," resemble a folded umbrella.
A 1932 knee-length black dress is called the "Taxi Dress" because, James used to say, it was so easy to put on you could do it in a taxi — it was basically an early wrap dress. A 1933 black satin cocktail dress features an early use of a zipper seam. A "Ribbon Dressing Gown" is made entirely of ribbons of different widths, in peach, gold, yellow and ivory silk satin. The shape of the gown is formed not with seams and darts, but merely by varying the width of the ribbons.
James even designed the first elegant down-filled puffer jacket. Only one of them was made, said curator Harold Koda, touring the exhibit with a reporter recently, and it was passed around among his fans and clients.
But James was most proud of his striking 1953 "Clover Dress" in white satin and black velvet, with a full, sculptured skirt formed with four distinct "lobes" — like a clover. The gown's wide skirt never touches the ground — it is meant to lift up on the dance floor and create a gliding effect. Met curators commissioned a full recreation of the dress so that they could better understand how it moved and what it was like to wear.
"Look at that," remarked Posen as he examined the gown on Monday. "You can't even see the seam on that velvet! It's amazing."
One room of the exhibit is devoted not to gowns but to biographical items — such as hats, which were James' earliest designs (he started as a milliner in the 1920s), as well as prototypes for jewelry and typewritten notes that display his rather mercurial and demanding work style. One note lists celebrities James hadn't dressed, but wanted to, including rockers Mick Jagger — whom he calls "a sexy bastard" — as well as David Bowie and Lou Reed.
James was born in England, but came to the United States at age 18, first to Chicago. He later centered his business in New York, catering to well-known socialites of the day.