Thirty-six years after his death, the career of fashion designer Charles James is finally getting its due in this year's big Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibit. Dozens of James's creations—intricately constructed gowns, coats and more—fill the Anna Wintour Costume Center and other galleries.

The show, Charles James: Beyond Fashion examines the British-born, New York-based artist's "use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today," as the museum puts it. Some of the dramatic ball gowns have videos showing their elaborately detailed tailoring and workmanship.

The New Yorker's Judith Thurman wrote a fascinating feature about James, who was born to a British father and American mother (she was the daughter of a rich, Chicago real estate mogul), reached heights of fame with his couture dresses and then spent his last days very poor and living at the Chelsea Hotel.

James designed several outfits with an adjustable fit, so that two sizes accommodated most figures. The infinity scarf and the wrap dress were his inventions, as was the down jacket—a puffer for evening in ivory satin, which Dali admired as a “soft sculpture.” One of James’s novelties was a proto sports bra.

By rights, he should be remembered, like Chanel, as one of those revolutionary pragmatists who changed the way that women dress. But James was often too early to get credit for his breakthroughs. He introduced an A-line coat ten years before Yves Saint Laurent, who had just taken over at Dior, made headlines with the Trapeze dress. It must also be said that Chanel and Saint Laurent focussed on women’s lives, while James fixated zealously on their proportions. “The feminine figure,” he believed, is “intrinsically wrong,” i.e. not platonically ideal by his standards. His mission to correct its flaws with a nip and a tuck, an arcing seam, a buckram implant, a cushion of air between skin and cloth diminished his relevance, even as it enhanced his prestige as an anatomist. The young find remedial fashion intrinsically uncool.

The exhibit opens on Thursday, May 8 (member previews are tomorrow and Wednesday, May 6-7) and runs through August 10.