Charles James: Beyond Fashion

22nd May, 2014
CharlesJames

|ABOVE| dress forms, prototypes, millinery experiments and sketches drawn in shoe polish, all salvaged from Charles James’ studio

Charles James was an American couturier of unmatched elegance and exactitude. He worked like a sculptor ~ concerned with pioneering shapes, impervious to trends. He was both an historian and an engineer, obsessively studying historical precedent in clothing construction in order to forge into the future with totally new innovations ~ much in the same way that painting students copy the works of great masters in order to deeply comprehend true technique. A sign in his studio’s workroom commanded the staff: “If you’re going to make a mistake, make a new one.”

In the realms of the fashion-informed, his name represents a standard of perfection ~ and indeed, he sought that crown with uncompromising determination. The shapes he created transformed the face of fashion; in his relentless study and pursuit of perfection within this métier, he proved himself to be a true artist. Obsessed with proportion and single-minded in his vision, he devoted his life to pioneering technical and structural innovations. He was, in fact, the true originator of the wrap dress (which he called the ‘Taxi’ dress, inferring that a woman could change into it in a cab ~ titillating in 1929, the year it was conceived!)

A true virtuoso, it fits that Charles James should be the subject of this year’s costume exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show focuses primarily on the ball gowns he built during the 1940′s and 1950′s, all emblematic of his fascination with complex cut and seaming, with mathematic rigor and an insatiable creative curiosity.CharlesJames2|ABOVE| The halls of the exhibit are peppered with James’ grand proclamations. Another reads, “Elegance is not a social distinction but a sensual distinction. The mind combines with the body to exploit its senses, its functions, its appearance.” CharlesJames3|ABOVE| A trio of muslins (left), looking almost as flawlessly finished as the finished silk gowns (right) for which they served as prototypes CharlesJames4|ABOVE| Sketches and scrapbooks salvaged from the designers’ studio CharlesJames5|ABOVE LEFT| A silk velvet, satin, and organdy gown ordered by the legendary Babe Paley |ABOVE RIGHT| A cascading, v-shaped gown designed for Marietta Tree (“married well, bedded better”) // Among many idiosyncrasies unique to Charles James’ career is the fact that he never created in a void: every shape was made for an individual client (in other words, no seasonal collections or for-the-trade runway shows). In this way, he can truly to be said to have designed for women ~ not for some imagined idea of them. CharlesJames6|ABOVE| James’ famous ‘Clover Leaf’ dress (circa 1953) ~ his personal favorite and greatest feat of engineering ~ weighed 10 pounds but was built so as to feel weightless to its wearer // The bodice is buttressed from the waist and the skirt balanced on the hips. It does not touch the ground, but is intended to lift off the dance floor like an ice skater’s skirt in pirouette. CharlesJames7|ABOVE| Much of James’ draping was focused around and in celebration of the pelvic area, for he believed designs should exude a procreative allure. Because of this, many of his shapes seem to be a wearable answer to similarly vulvic works by the painter Georgia O’Keeffe // In the words of the designer himself, fashion is “what is rare, correctly proportioned, and, though utterly discreet, libidinous.” CharlesJames8|ABOVE| Charles James’ ‘Swan’ gown exhibits a lush romanticism // The designer’s bodices never featured horizontal waistlines, as James considered them unnatural ~ “a concept of manufacturers and sketch artists.”CharlesJames9|ABOVE + BELOW| James played with the architecture of apparel by using varied-but-similarly-hued wide ribbons to shape the body. The contoured expansion and reduction of fabric serves to achieve what is usually accomplished by seams and darts; the variegations in color cockily flaunt this technical accomplishment. Charles James was known for being both self-mythologizing and irascible. CharlesJames13 CharlesJames11|ABOVE LEFT| A 1950 dinner dress worn by Millicent Rogers |ABOVE RIGHT| An exuberant example of James’ signature spiral draping, circa 1952 CharlesJames12|ABOVE| A more romantic iteration of the career-defining Clover Leaf ball gown. Once he’d architecturally mastered a new shape, he was freed to subvert and experiment with the decorative details.

|LAST YEAR| the punks prevailed, but this summer’s costume exhibit is simply a lesson in beauty. If you have the good fortune to be in New York between now and August 10th, you must make it to the Met to immerse yourself in the grand dreams, the sculptural bravura and the sophisticated color sense of this singular and inspired artist.

|PHOTOS| by Kelly