A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” will be opening tonight

Most people don’t know who Charles James is. Hopefully, this year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” will rectify that, somewhat.

The gala opening is tonight. Men will don white tie and women lustrous evening gowns. James’s work has too often been defined by a dress code: by Cecil Beaton’s panorama of pellucid satin ball gowns, necks emerging swan-like from drapes of cloth. Many people know the Beaton picture below, even if they’re no idea who James is, or what he achieved. Part-Babe Paley, part-Disney Princess, the look will always have a certain saccharine currency.

My issue? James made some great ball gowns, sure – but he was a breathtakingly diverse designer, trying his hand at everything from sports gear to childrenswear. He offered garments ingeniously cut, so two sizes could accommodate any physique. He invented the puffer jacket – in 1937. Salvador Dali said it was the world’s first soft sculpture.

Even the ball gowns don’t get their fair dues. I hate comparisons between fashion and art, but James’ work came closer to art than perhaps anyone else’s. Those gowns are actually sculpture – equal parts artistry and engineering. James constructed carapaces of cambric and interfacing and trussed them with pliant fabric, like an iron fist in a velvet glove. They’re site-specific sculptures for the body.

I’m something of a fan – can you tell? That’s why nothing – but, nothing – will stop me getting to the Met next week, and seeing the work of one of the greatest fashion designers who ever pricked pin into fabric.