I had the great privilege of attending the press preview this Monday for the Charles James: Beyond Fashion at the new Anna Wintour Costume Center in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was my second time attending, so I was a bit of a veteran! After a lovely breakfast with the amazing milliner Ellen Christine at Sant Ambroeus,, we walked to the Met on a gorgeous day! Walking past us was Alber Elbaz from Lanvin design house.
Bill Cunningham was there, doing his thing, looking for all the most fashionable folks coming and going to the exhibit.
This gorgeous dress made of flowers greeted us as we walked in the museum and towards the exhibit. Pure magic as only the Met knows how!! (sorry for the construction guys in the photo as they were working hard to get this finished for the Met ball that night)
Anglo-American designer Charles James was recognized even in his heyday as a genius in the art of sculpting fabric into inventive fashions. While he produced relatively few garments over his 40-year career, today he holds cult status in fashion circles, as much for his legacy of unforgettable clothes as for the magnetic force of his complex personality and his unorthodox creative process. Without formal dressmaking training, he developed his own methodology based on mathematical, architectural, and sculptural concepts as they relate to the human body. His venturesome and original methods inspired and fascinated his contemporaries as well as generations of designers and admirers who followed.
Early Life and London Career A contemporary of American designers Gilbert Adrian, Norman Norell, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Christian Dior, James was born in 1906 in Surrey, England, of English and American parentage. His mother hailed from a socially prominent Chicago family and his father was a British military officer. Raised and educated in England, he initiated his design career in 1926, at the age of 19, as a milliner in Chicago using the name "Boucheron." Two years later, he set up a fledgling dressmaking business in New York, where one of his first commissions was to design sporting togs for the actress Gertrude Lawrence.
Returning to his England in 1929, he began to establish ties with influential figures in London and Paris, which, after several failed attempts, led by the mid-1930s to a viable dressmaking business conducted from 15 Bruton Street in London, and the Lancaster Hotel in Paris. Recognized for his iconoclastic approach to dressmaking, he traveled in circles orbited by artistic and creative luminaries such as Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Pavel Tchelitchew, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dalí. Couturiers Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior were also among his acquaintances and early supporters. Dior in fact attributed his New Look designs to a James idea. These associations profoundly affected James's artistic development and provided the contacts he needed to develop relationships with sartorially adventurous women from English society.
During the London/Paris years, James developed a lifelong fascination with complex cut and seaming, creating key design elements and forms that he would use throughout his career—the wrapover trouser skirt, the body-hugging "Sirene" dress, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, front-point drapery, and poufs.
New York Career
James left London and moved permanently to New York in late 1939. By 1945, after working briefly for Elizabeth Arden, whose showroom he designed, James had gained sufficient recognition to open his own workroom and salon at 699 Madison Avenue. From there he worked in the pure couture tradition, custom-designing, fitting, and creating new forms for America's most prominent and stylish women, among them the style-setting heiress Millicent Rogers; the art patron Dominique de Menil; Austine McDonnell Hearst, journalist and wife of publisher William Randolph Hearst Jr.; and the entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee. Although his artistic perfectionism and conflicted psychological makeup led him to behave erratically and irresponsibly in all areas of his life, his clients clamored to be dressed by him and went to great lengths to support him artistically and financially. In a 1957 letter held in the Brooklyn Museum archives, Dominique de Menil wrote to Director Edgar C. Schenck: "My husband and I consider Charles James to be one of the most original and universal designers of this period and in this country...Traveling as we do…we are amazed to see how many dresses from the Paris Couture actually can be traced back to Charles James."
Swan Ball Gown
Date: 1949–50 Culture: American Medium: silk, cotton Dimensions: Length at CB: 61 in. (154.9 cm)
Each gown was on a circular stage, allowing visitors to see the 360-degree view of all the details. I thought this was a very neat idea, and really gives you a close look at each piece's construction. There is a video, which starts out with the gown specs, which afterwards you get an in-depth tour of the gown’s construction through video animation that illustrates how Mr. James structured the design. When the video showcases a specific detail—the curve of a seam or the drape on a skirt, a light moves in sync around the gown to show you that same seam or drape. This would make a wonderful exhibit for students of fashion, to really see how he made these glorious works of art.
Red Ball Gown
1951 Green Evening Dress
For the Eisenhower Inaugural Ball of 1953, Austine Hearst, the wife of Mr. William Randolph Hearst, Jr., commissioned Charles James to create something for her to wear. Although the resulting garment was not, in typical Jamesian manner, completed in time for the function, it has since become one of the icons of mid-century couture and by James's own evaluation, his pinnacle in dressmaking.Reworking a lobed hemline design in the 1930s and melding it with a quatrefoil millinery model of 1948, James fabricated a gown of four layers-and inner taffeta slip, a structured under petticoat, a matching petticoat flare, and an overdress. The garment expresses James's fascination with geometry and mathematics: while the four lobes are not of equal dimension, they readily fit within a circle. His eye for line and texture is demonstrated by the application the costliest silks: white duchess satin, black velours de Lyon, and ivory silk faille. Here James is a sculptor who happens to have selected fabric as his medium. The garment is constructed from thirty pattern pieces, twenty-eight of which are cut in duplicate, the remaining two singly. Once he had perfected the form he went on to create other similarly shaped garments, some of which were copies, others adaptations. The stole, with its petal outline, is of black silk velvet and white stain. It was adapted from the hipline yoke of a ball gown that James created in 1949.
Red silk velvet ball gown
co-curator Harold Koda speaking to the press about the wonderful exhibit
"Butterfly" Ball Gown, ca. 1955
Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle
My favorite gown! If is it possible to have just one! I could not stop going back to it to just stare at it's beauty!
James was at the height of his popularity and productivity in the early 1950s. The culminating design of his dressmaking career was, in his opinion, a 1953 ball gown with an undulating four-lobed skirt known as the "Abstract" or "Clover Leaf." Created initially for Austine McDonnell Hearst to wear to the Eisenhower inaugural ball, it merged James's skills as a sculptor, architect, and engineer in one spectacular statement. Perhaps buoyed by this achievement, he went on to design several equally memorable models in the following two years—the "Butterfly," "Tree," and "Swan" gowns, each having profusions of multicolored tulle, and the spare, body-hugging "Diamond," the structural and formal opposite of the others. Aside from his ball gowns, his outstanding designs of the early 1950s included his innovative sculptural coats produced in association with the manufacturers William S. Popper and Dressmaker Casuals. These associations, like several others, were short-lived, as James's perfectionism and difficult artistic temperament ran counter to the demands of the ready-to-wear environment. He received prestigious awards from his peers in the fashion industry, including two Coty awards in 1950 and 1954, which cited his masterful skills as a colorist, draper, and sculptor. Neiman-Marcus bestowed acknowledgment for his outstanding contributions to the fashion industry in 1953.
In 1952, James expanded his business, moving from his cramped quarters at 699 Madison Avenue to two locations—a workroom at 716 Madison Avenue, where he instituted wholesale manufacturing along with custom work, and a showroom at the highly prestigious 12 East 57th Street. Despite this success, his reputation began to wane mid- decade as economic woes, brought on by a lifelong pattern of fiscal irresponsibility, endless litigation, and an inability to work within the mainstream fashion industry, engulfed him. He vacated his workshop and showroom in 1958, but continued to work in reduced circumstances, tirelessly perfecting former designs and formulating new ones, and, most significantly, developing projects that would preserve his legacy. The last 14 years of his life were spent in rooms at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street, New York's legendary haven for artists. There he maintained a coterie of devoted clients, friends, and admirers with whom he worked and held court until his death in 1978.
This exhibit was really so wonderful. These gowns were really full of timeless elegance, The workmanship is just unbelievable. I will be working on another post where I show more detail for you of the gowns. The up close shots I got were pretty amazing and since I have so many readers interested in fashion, I thought you would love to see it! I also saw Hamish Bowles walking around the exhibit as well.
Be sure to not miss the second part of the exhibit, as this is the first time the exhibit is shown in 2 different locations in the museum. The first half is inside the Costume Center, the second half is within the special exhibition galleries on the first floor. It is very easy to miss the 2nd part of the exhibit, so be sure to look for this sign, or ask one of the Met employees.
All history in this post about Charles James was provided by the Metropolitan Museum Press Office.
Some Quotes of the Day about Charles James:
“Not only the greatest American couturier, but the world’s best.” —Cristobal Balenciaga
“The greatest talent of my generation.” —Christian Dior
“A single James creation is worth the whole output of a 7th Avenue year’s work.” —James Galanos