Charles James: A life of Angels and Demons

Designer Charles James (left) fits socialite Austine Hearst into a gown for Harper’s Bazaar in 1947. Image HARPER’S BAZAAR/GETTY

Ever since the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Centre opened it’s spring 2014 fashion exhibit, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, it seems that the name on everyone’s tongue is that of legendary British-American couturier, Charles James.

Two of James’ designs captured by Eliot Elisofon in the October 1950 issue of LIFE magazine. Seen here are examples of James’ Lampshade Gown (worn by model at left) and an evening ensemble complete with with a voluminous coat. Image ELIOT ELISOFON/LIFE MAGAZINE

Until this opening, he was a largely forgotten figure in today’s fashion world; a relic of the past from the time when today’s biggest fashion houses (Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, etc.) were just starting out. How could this have happened? Put simply, to have forgotten Charles James was a travesty. He was a creative genius and self-taught master-cutter, possessing the ability to transform plain fabrics into elaborate and stunning gowns of almost architectural construction. His ability to transform the contours of a woman’s body into something almost mythological in proportion is akin to the genius we still celebrate in creations of Madame Grès and Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Style icon and socialite Babe Paley poses in a Charles James gown in this 1950 John Rawlings photograph (left), different views of the gown on display in the MET exhibition. Image GETTY/JOHN RAWLINGS/METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

He was praised and admired by his peers, being lauded icons like Paul Poiret, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Coco Chanel, and was one of the most sought-after designers of his generation. Christian Dior credited James with inspiring 1947’s iconic “New Look,” referring to him as, “the greatest talent of my generation,” while Balenciaga praised James with raising the craft of dressmaking to a “pure art form.” He was considered a master of his day and accordingly, his client list included legendary names like Millicent Rogers, Lily Pons, Austine Hearst, Gypsy Rose Lee, Jennifer Jones, Babe Paley and Marietta Tree; women who only had time for the best!

It is no wonder that he believed himself to be “properly regarded as the greatest couturier in the world,” since at that time, he quite likely was.

Le Groux Souers Hat, created by Charles James in 1952 and shot by Norman Parkinson. Image GETTY

Again I have to ask, HOW could such an inherently talented and famous figure in the world of fashion have slipped so easily into the realm of anonymity?

Sadly, the answer seems to be that James did this to himself. Brilliant designer and couturier that he was, Charles James suffered from several demons that made him a miserable person to be around. Erratic, wildly arrogant, extravagant and scathingly articulate, James rubbed everybody the wrong way. Karl Lagerfeld once remarked that James was, “a tiny little midget with dyed hair – the most unpleasant man I ever met. I think he was his own worst enemy.” These inconsistencies are today thought to be manifestations of bipolar mania, but these were ultimately the some of the tools of his downfall.

Two views of a rare 1941 evening dress, on display at the MET exhibition. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Like his personality, James’ business practices were similarly discordant. Being born and raised in great wealth, Charles James operated on this level of affluence at all times- no matter how dismal the reality of his financial situation was. His extravagant business practices left him constantly fleeing debt and his perpetual habit of moving and starting over left him unable to ever fully establish his design house. He moved all over London, Paris and the eastern United States, never able to achieve the financial stability required to build a successful brand; much less that required to allow his brand to grow.

Different views of Charles James’ Butterfly Dress circa 1952-53, including a peek at the underpinnings of the skirt. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

James was driven by one desire: to be completely original. He looked upon his creations as works of art (as did many of his customers) and wanted to produce things that no one had ever seen or even thought of before. Throughout his career, he worked continually to realize this vision. He ignored the venerated schedule of the fashion seasons, perpetually reworking original designs and ideas to create something new. It is perhaps right to look upon to his constant moving as a sort of self-inflicted exercise to keep him creatively “open” by constantly exposing himself to new situations.

A silk dressing gown, constructed of ribbons of silk, was created by James in 1944. Seen here in an undated photograph (left) and on display in the MET exhibition. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Since the components of his designs were interchangeable, James always had access to a never-ending fund of ideas on which to draw upon. He therefore spent his time refining patterns, documenting his dresses, writing and theorizing. This pursuit of originality trumped James’ commitments to his clients, manufactures, stores and basically everyone and everything, resulting in his ultimate downfall and- for us today, a relatively small number of finished pieces. Years of this behavior eventually led the Internal Revenue Service to shut down his business in the late 1950s, whereupon he retired from fashion.

James’ Tulip Gown, photographed in an issue of Vogue in 1950 (left), and on display at the MET exhibition. Image VOGUE/GETTY/METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

In the fall of 1978 Charles James was living in a three room apartment in New York’s Chelsea Hotel when he fell ill with bronchial pneumonia. His cavalier attitude was still intact however, as Vogue records that he reportedly kept the ambulance meant to take him to the hospital waiting while he primped his face and clothes, telling them, “it may not mean anything to you…I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world.” He died later that night.

James’ Swan gown, circa 1954, is made of silk taffeta and tulle and boast a skirt that is 6 feet in diameter! Nancy James in a 1955 photograph by Cecil Beaton (left), a view of the gown’s bustle, which was constructed to resemble the folded wings of a swan and the gown on display in the MET exhibition. Image GETTY/CECIL BEATON/METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

With the MET’s exhibition, some of his former acclaim has been restored and hopefully will continue to grow. The display has received almost universal recognition and is quickly becoming a spring blockbuster. Perfectly curated, the exhibit returns the spotlight to James, focusing on and highlighting his incredible talent and workmanship, while staying away from his tumultuous personal life (thankfully).

Different views of two silk wedding dresses that James created. The top gown was created in 1948, and is on display at the MET exhibit, the bottom gown dates to 1932, and was created by James in London during an early part of his career. It is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM

The exhibition comes in two parts. The first floor displays a collection of 15 James gowns mounted on special exhibition platforms. Each platform is equipped with a video monitor that dissects the garment into it’s individual pattern pieces, then puts it all back together. Thus we begin to understand the kind of architectural experiments that James must have taken to construct these wondrous gowns.

Three versions of James’ La Sirène evening dress on display in the MET exhibit. This was one of James’ most popular designs and he created them on order throughout his career, the purple version (centre) is the oldest in the collection and dates back to 1939, the white (left) is from 1951 and the black (right) is from the 1940s. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Downstairs in the former costume space (now Anna Wintour Costume Centre), two whole galleries are filled with an account of over 35 years of James’ work. Items from James’ archives document the development of his work during his twenty-year career, spanning from the 1930s to the 1950s. Judging from the dense display of materials it is clear that the MET is dedicated to portraying James’ talent fully. On show are over 20 recent acquisitions of his work, as well as over 40 garments from the Brooklyn Museum’s Costume Collection, which the MET procured in 2009.

Different views of James’ iconic Tree Gown, circa 1955, including a view of the voluminous underskirt. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Here the museum seeks to track James’ design process and the progress of it’s sensibility, from the fluid silk sheaths and sparse lines of the 1930s, to the increasingly structured work produced in the 1940s and ’50s. James’ genius is conveyed in his hats, jackets, coats, and most famously, his gowns. The MET presents these pieces in four themes that were predominant in his designs, “Spirals and Wraps,” “Drapes and Folds,” “Platonic Form” and “Anatomical Cut.”

One of James Clover Leaf gowns, this version is patterned with a flowing print of fern leaves. Seen here in a 1954 photograph (left), on display in the MET exhibition, and in the original sketch by James (right). Image GETTY/METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

The MET has displayed James as an artist rather than a designer, with Harold Koda, the co-curator of the show describing him as a, “sculptor in cloth.” How accurate as it conveys the image of an artist interested in visual spectacle and a true craftsman of design- hallmarks of Charles James’ work. He literally built his gowns, constructing them using techniques he learned while working as a milliner, and this exhibit reveals an artist capable of producing work in line with the extremes of Alexander McQueen, but with a more subtle sense of ostentation, classically set in architectural expression. Not bad for a man who was practically self-taught in the art of dressmaking!

Two views of James’ Diamond evening dress, circa 1957, on display at the MET exhibition. Due to the extensive boning techniques employed by James in constructing this gown, it was a fully self-supporting garment. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

When a woman wore one of his gowns, she was instantly noticed. Nothing he produced was meant to be worn by the faint of heart. A good example of this took place in 1961 when artist Lee Krasner was preparing for her first solo exhibition in London. Krasner contacted James, saying she wanted an outfit that would not draw too much attention to herself, instead allowing it to focus on her work. James replied, “That, Mrs. Pollock, is the one thing I cannot do for you.” She immediately commissioned three outfits.

Two views of the coming-out gown that James created for socialite Cynthia Cunningham’s debutante ball in 1951. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

James constantly used asymmetry to capture the eye and did much the same with his logic-defying seams. He used these seams to bring attention to the details of his design. Sometimes his touch was subtle- a single seam spiraling up the body, while at times they are elaborate, sectioning off pieces of the garment to achieve a tighter fit, while creating points of interest that direct the eye towards specific features- the waist, the knees, pelvis or across the shoulders. His handling of these techniques often transcended the ostentatious aspects of his design to convey the female body in all it’s glory, many times in startlingly erotic terms.

Socialite Millicent Rogers is captured in a Charles James evening gown in this 1948 Gene Fenn photograph for Town and Country Magazine. For this gown, James drew inspiration from the work of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and one can see the stylized eroticism in the sweeping curves of the over skirt and in the tight pleating at the front of the underskirt right below the peaked bodice. Image GENE FENN/TOWN AND COUNTRY MAGAZINE/METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

His innovative shapes can easily be seen as highly stylized eroticism. James described fashion as an art form that, “is rare, correctly proportioned and, though utterly discrete, libidinous,” and often referred to his design as, “a high form of eroticism.” His driving passion was to convey, “form related to movement and, above all, to erotic grace,” and with this in mind, one can see how he used his talent to exhibit his ideals.

Two James innovations: the Figure Eight skirt (left and centre) and the pyjama-styled Lounge trousers (right). The skirt, seen here in separate editorials in 1948 and 1941 editions of Harper’s Bazaar, was called the Figure Eight because it was cut to swirl between the legs in two circles and gave the skirt a full shape without using a lot of fabric. The Lounge trousers boasted what is called a Pavlovian waistline- a comfortable feature designed to expand the garment’s waist to accommodate the stomach after a meal. Image HARPER’S BAZAAR/ CONDE NAST PUBLISHING/GETTY

A Charles James gown transforms a woman by altering the contours of her body. His distinctive and complex draping defines a sinuous line sweeping down the length of the torso, while his elaborate and masterful layering creates skirts that bloom into a voluminous cloud that spreads out in shapes resembling forms only seen in nature. Butterfly wings, tulips, swan’s wings, fish tails, four-leaf clovers and peacock plumes can all be seen in James’ later creations.

James’ Puffer Jacket was created in 1937 for Mrs. Oliver Burr Jennings, seen here in an undated photograph (left) and on display at the MET exhibition. The jacket is made out of eiderdown-stuffed silk satin and was constructed in the same manner as a quilted blanket. Image GETTY/METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

James’ mastery is also seen in the details of his pieces, granting every aspect of his garments- from the seams, to fabric, the embellishment and the colour, a certain autonomy; you can appreciate each feature for themselves and as part of the whole. It is details such as these that confirm that James design struck a perfect balance between passionate artistry and technical innovation.

Charles James’ most regarded gown, and one of his most technically complex creations: the Clover Leaf Gown, which he created for heiress Austine Hearst in 1953. Worn by Mrs. Hearst in 1953 (left), a look at the boning techniques needed to construct the gown, and the gown on display in the MET exhibit. Images METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/GETTY

He presented the design world with genuine originality. His extensive use of the millinery techniques of blocking and boning made the majority of his garments fully self-supporting- a lady only had to add stockings and shoes to complete her look. A true revolutionary, he is credited with having promoted strapless designs during the rationing of the 1930s, inventing the puffer jacket, the figure-eight skirt, the expandable Pavlovian waistband, the spiral zipper, the spiral layering cut and the “Taxi Dress”- a garment so easy to wear that it could be slipped on in the backseat of a taxi. Basically, many designs and techniques that saturate today’s fashion market (like puffer jackets and the wrap dress) can be traced back to the genius of Charles James.

Three of James’ revolutionary designs: (from left) a silk taffeta evening dress circa 1952, the Taxidress circa 1932 and the Spiral evening dress circa 1950. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Charles James has given the fashion world so much, yet to all our shame, his work has been mainly forgotten in the 36 years since his passing. Thankfully, with this exhibition, James’ raw talent and vision have again been allowed to shine, to be admired, to be celebrated. I hope that his legacy and name will again be acknowledged and that he is so justly recognized as a founding titan of today’s fashion world.

Two views of a silk satin evening dress and matching cape, produced by James in 1937. Image METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

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