Fashion insiders have long admired the work of Charles James. But only now is this late, great couturier getting the attention his stature and artistry deserve: From May 8 through August 10, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will present “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the designer. Featuring 75 of his most magnificent creations, the show will include his splendid ball gowns from the 1940s and ’50s, as well as his wrap-over trousers, ribbon capes and dresses, and spiral-cut garments and poufs. It will all be exhibited in the Met’s new Anna Wintour Costume Center, named for the Vogue editor in chief, as well as in the museum’s first-floor special exhibitions galleries, where attendees of the annual Met Gala got a first glimpse of the show on Monday. (Interestingly, following the event, film executive Harvey Weinstein announced his intention to revive the label, with his wife, fashion designer Georgina Chapman, as its creative consultant.)
Acclaimed for creating dresses of formidable construction, James worked in London, Chicago, Paris and New York during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, pleasing the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Babe Paley, Dominique de Menil and Gypsy Rose Lee. Introspective spoke with Jan Glier Reeder, consulting curator at the Costume Center, who organized the show with curator Harold Koda.
What makes James’s designs so special?
He was a very complicated man who worked in a very idiosyncratic style. He preferred to design directly on the bodies of his clients. Rather than make a sketch and pattern first, he would ask them to stand while he draped and pinned and cut. Of course, this took patience on the part of the women. Sometimes they would stand for hours.
Why did he work this way?
He wanted that immediacy when he was creating. Everyone recognized his genius and was quite willing to put up with his habits. He was an engaging conversationalist, and he kept his clients amused.
What did he do when he couldn’t design on a client’s body?
Sometimes he worked on forms that he would pad to resemble the body of the woman for whom he was designing. He would use a standard dress form and then add muslin and sculpt it to the shape and size of his client.
How he did he come to design this way?
A few years after leaving the Harrow School, in England, he became a milliner in Chicago, where his father had initially gotten him a job in business. (He never finished high school or attended a university and quickly left the field.) He found that by molding hats to clients’ heads rather than using forms, they fit much better. When he moved on to dressmaking, he continued to use the same technique. He chose hat-making and eventually dress-designing in rebellion against his aristocratic father, who was in the British military. It was his way of defying him. His father later disowned him.
Were his clothes comfortable to wear?
Even though his sumptuous gowns often had huge architectural shapes, women wore them as if they were weightless. He would measure the depth of a torso, rather than simply its length and width. They were made so that they would be perfectly poised on the hipline. His gowns flowed beautifully and flatteringly.
Did he favor certain colors?
He used more shades than you could find in an English garden, often contrasting unusual colors.
“Even though his sumptuous gowns often had huge architectural shapes, women wore them as if they were weightless,” says Jan Glier Reeder.
What were his inspirations for the ball gowns?
Historical styles, like bustle dresses, corseted bodices and the high-bust Empire style. He changed the look of women’s torsos. A friend of Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau and Pavel Tchelitchew, James became fascinated with surrealism, dreams and metamorphoses. He loved transposition. That’s how he came up with the Butterfly and Lobster gowns, with the latter looking like crustaceans.
Did he have a formal education in anatomy and design?
No, but he became very erudite. He felt the workmanship in London was not the best, so he moved to Paris in the thirties. He wanted to be a couturier on the level of the French, and he trained himself, setting up an atelier in the Hôtel Lancaster and developing relationships with French workers. He greatly admired Christian Dior, Balenciaga and Schiaparelli, all of whom were then working in Paris.
What kind of life did he lead?
He surrounded himself with important, aristocratic and literary people as he moved from London to Paris to, eventually, New York in the forties. He thrived in many circles. When he arrived in New York, he marshaled all his resources and friends and people in fashion so he could become a known entity. He had ateliers on East Fifty-seventh Street and Madison Avenue. The beautiful photograph by his friend Cecil Beaton of eight women wearing his lavish ball gowns in an eighteenth-century setting greatly enhanced his career.
How did he go about making a name for himself, besides designing his fabulous ball gowns?
He tried to revolutionize the standard measurements for women’s clothes, criticizing the fact that they had stayed the same for a hundred and fifty years, never taking into consideration the variety of changing body types. He designed his own dress form, dubbed the Jenny, as a way of trying to get American dressmakers to create better-fitting clothes. It could be dissected and moved into different postures, like a moving sculpture. His passion was to improve American dressmaking. He was always on the cutting edge, inventing new techniques and fabrics.
Could only the young and svelte wear his designs?
No, he dressed all sizes and shapes, giving women figures they didn’t even know they had. He could camouflage by accenting the hips or raising the bust lines. He knew all the tailoring tricks. Women loved to wear his clothes.
How many original designs did he create, and how many gowns did he make over the course of his career?
He created at least two hundred original designs and made two thousand to three thousand dresses. He even had brief forays into ready-to-wear, but they didn’t last long, as he couldn’t let go and turn things over to a manufacturer.
Was he very successful?
Not financially. He was always struggling to stay afloat. He was very extravagant and couldn’t manage money, and he didn’t produce enough volume. He closed his showroom in nineteen fifty-eight but remained active until his death, teaching at Pratt, the Rhode Island School of Design and other schools, very consciously building his legacy. He was among the first designers to deposit his designs in a museum, choosing the Brooklyn Museum, and he also encouraged his clients to donate their gowns to the Brooklyn Museum. When its collection was transferred to the Met’s Costume Institute in 2009, it gave the institution one of the most comprehensive collections from a single designer.
How has the exhibition been set up?
We’ve taken a very analytical approach — if any designer deserves the analytical approach, it is James. We’re using a lot of new technologies, cameras and animation to illustrate how he worked, and a video animation will show how he created his anatomically considered pieces. Then, of course, there are rooms devoted to his gorgeous dresses.
What do you expect people will get out of the exhibit?
If visitors become aware of the time, artistry, study and imagination that James put into his works, I should hope that they would leave with great respect for what goes into creations of this brilliance.