With fashion luminaries like Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Donatella Versace, Carolina Herrera, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and others packed into the audience, the first lady helped launch the museum's new $40 million Anna Wintour Costume Center, named for the editor of Vogue magazine. After her remarks, the designers and other guests toured the center's inaugural exhibit, which features the work of Charles James, an influential mid-20th century American couturier.
"I'm here today because of Anna," Mrs. Obama said. "I'm so impressed by Anna's contributions not just to fashion but to this great museum. This center is for anyone who cares about fashion and how it impacts our culture and our history."
The first lady, who wore a forest-green silk organza dress with three-quarter sleeves by Naeem Khan, one of her favorite designers, said the center would teach young people "that fashion is not just a business but an art" and that it would "be a source of learning and inspiration" for all ages.
She also said she and Wintour are working to bring students to the White House for a fashion workshop.
Others at the event included Tory Burch, Zac Posen, Victoria Beckham, Alexander Wang, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen of The Row, Reed Krakoff, Prabal Gurung and the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte.
Obama was not expected to attend the Met's annual Costume Institute gala Monday night, which typically attracts many celebrities and Hollywood A-listers.
Many of those guests were expected to try to channel the spirit of James, who died in 1978, into their outfits. Although his name is not well-known to the general public, he's revered by fashion insiders and current designers.
Through his complex, innovative work from the 1930s through the 1950s, James designed spectacular gowns that often resembled sculptures more than mere garments. His clients included Gypsy Rose Lee, Marlene Dietrich and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr. None other than Christian Dior called him "the greatest talent of my generation."
The new Met show, "Charles James: Beyond Fashion," emphasizes technology. In a large ground-floor gallery, animated videos illustrate how each gown was constructed, from the original piece of fabric to the intricate completed garment.
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.
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 of the notes lists celebrities James hadn't dressed, but wanted to, including rockers Mick Jagger — whom he calls "a sexy bastard" — 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.