Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic
12:47 PM EDT, May 6, 2014
When Kim Kardashian, in a draped petrol blue Lanvin gown, is one of the best dressed, you know it was a crazy night.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala for the fashion exhibition "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" was beyond fashion indeed.
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 Chanel Couture. She was accompanied by daughter Bee Schaffer, in a gorgeous pale blue satin-and-tulle trumpet gown by Alexander McQueen's Sarah Burton. (So much for the rabble-rousing reputation of that label.)
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?)
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker, hair piled atop her head in a socialite's chignon, wore a black-and-white confection with a train signed by its creator, today's Charles James, the patrician designer Oscar de la Renta. (It was a big night for De la Renta, who dressed several women in his brand of unflappable retro glam, including Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift and Amy Adams.)
The perfectly proportioned molded by Zac Posen crinolines. Yards of gleaming duchesse satin as far as the eye could see. Even trash-talking funny lady Sarah Silverman looked like a lady.
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, Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Vogue's Hamish Bowles and Andre Leon Talley, wore Ralph Lauren. And Lauren is the biggest patrician pretender of all -- a Jewish kid who grew up in the Bronx, changed his name from Lifshitz to Lauren and scaled the heights of power in America. Now, his son David, who is executive vice president of global advertising, marketing and communications for the brand, has married into one of America's first families, pairing with Lauren Bush.
Victoria Beckham, a teenage pop tart turned taste-maker, was wearing a dress of her own design (and hubbie David Beckham, like several men on Monday night, eschewed the dress code of tails and wore a tux instead). Former child stars the Olsen twins, raised in Sherman Oaks, looked like Old World society matrons. And Talley, the longtime Vogue editor (who just recently left the publication), chose to pay homage not to any designer but to pop music provocateur Pharrell Williams and the biggest fashion statement in memory, by wearing a Vivienne Westwood Mountain hat.
The dress code went out the window, was stomped on and laughed at.
By far the biggest and best disturbance was Lupita Nyong'o, dressed in a Prada green chandelier dress, like something African American showgirl Josephine Baker would have worn in James' era, when she fled segregated America for fame and fortune in France.
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.
Nicole Richie slinked in wearing Donna Karan crushed velvet and violet-hued hair. Model Naomi Campbell shimmied in Givenchy crystals and marabou feathers. And Beyonce underwhelmed in basic black.
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.
It made fashion seem like the most equal-opportunity business in the world for a change. And that was delicious.
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