James, who is often called "America's first couturier," was at his height from the 1930s to the 1950s, when he revolutionized fashion from the inside out. A sculptor of cloth, he championed strapless dresses, the figure-eight skirt and spiral cuts. His work was the antithesis of today's disposable fast-fashion. Each piece was painstakingly constructed, hand-sculpted to the client's measurements, took hundreds of hours to complete, and only available to the super-wealthy.
Indeed, James catered to the upper crust of his time -- the Hearsts, the Merriweather Posts, the Vanderbilt Whitneys and so on.
And the red-carpet parade leading into the event celebrating James on Monday night looked much the same -- at first glance. The dress code was ball gowns and gloves for women; white tie, tails and decorations for men.
Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, who on Monday had the museum's new Costume Institute space named in her honor -- inaugurated by none other than First Lady Michelle Obama -- led the charge in a tasteful floral gown by
And so it went for a while -- the genteel display that the fashion industry is so good at promoting. (Everyone is rich, thin, gorgeous and happy, remember?)
The perfectly proportioned molded by
I imagined tiny royal waves to the crowd, accompanied by choruses of "Charmed, I'm sure." It was all too much.
But then something great happened: I started to notice how, if you looked beyond the polished veneer, the fashion industry is more layered and inclusive than it was in James' day, and much the better for it. The night really belonged to patrician pretenders, dress-code disturbers and reality-show royalty.
Most every leading man, including John Legend,
The dress code went out the window, was stomped on and laughed at.
By far the biggest and best disturbance was
Was there some historical commentary in her outfit choice? I certainly hope so. Women such as Nyong'o certainly wouldn't have been privy to Charles James designs.
It was a topsy-turvy night.
Then there were the West-Kardashians: The rapper and his reality-show muse, the new king and queen of American culture, perfectly dressed for the occasion by Lanvin, one of the oldest fashion houses in France. Everything comes full circle in America. And that's why these two were on the March cover of Vogue.