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The Fabled Charles James

Colin McDowell looks back at the life and work of the designer who Christian Dior called “the greatest talent of my generation.”
  • Colin McDowell

NEW YORK, United States — I would guess that we all have a short list of people, now dead, with whom we would love to have had at least one face-to-face conversation. At the top of my fashion list is the American designer Charles James. That is why I am so pleased that for only the second time since his death in 1978, James is being honoured with a major retrospective of his life and work, opening this week at the newly inaugurated Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This is a big exhibition in a big venue devoted to the entire oeuvre of a big man, who is certainly the greatest American fashion talent of the last century.

I never met Charles James, but I did speak of him with Sir Hardy Amies, the British Queen's couturier, who knew James well, at the time of the only other major exhibition of his work, at New York's Brooklyn Museum in 1982. I already knew that Charles James was a difficult and litigious man, but Hardy, who loved to gossip and had a marvellously fluent tongue, explained him to me very succinctly: “What you have to understand about Charlie, dear boy, is that he was a great hater and always ready for a fight. But he was also passionate about making clothes and ready to make any sacrifice for his art.” As our vodka-fuelled lunch continued, I remember Hardy speaking of James as “the Pythagoras of fashion; the Michelangelo of fashion; the Einstein of fashion; and a man who made Caligula seem as open and kind as a Sunday school teacher.” Much later, I read what the photographer Cecil Beaton had written in his diary about James — they were both at the English boarding school Harrow together — and the story was the same: “His talent was marvellous; his wit bitter… He could be utterly wonderful and, then, with alacrity, kill everything by being objectionable… No one could cope with his temperament for long.”

Charles James came from a financially secure Anglo-American family. His father was British and, in 1906, when James was born, was an officer in the British army, although he later moved with his family to America where he became a very successful businessman. Charles' mother was American and the daughter of a very rich Chicago family — “socially, the crème de la crème,” according to Amies. His childhood was spent on both sides of the Atlantic and seems to have been reasonably happy. Although a 1924 entry in Evelyn Waugh's diary, recording tea with the James family, described Charles as being “restless” in his young manhood, there seemed little sign of the great hatred that later developed between him and his father. (Although his mother supported him emotionally and, often, financially throughout her entire life, his father virtually cut him off). He had many things to contend with in his son, not least his homosexuality, which showed itself early on. James left Harrow rather precipitously as the result of a “sexual indiscretion” which was never specified and, even in his early teens, was living and extolling the homosexual life perfectly openly. Beaton commented on his “knowledge of the seamier side of life.” Then, quite late in life, he amazed everyone not only by marrying a very rich American woman, but also by fathering two children, whom he apparently adored.

Charles James' interest in fashion blossomed early and, between the world wars, he opened a salon in Bruton Street in the West End of London, helped by Beaton and the British interior decorator Oliver Messel. They organised a showing of his clothes in London to drum up customers but, as Beaton sadly recorded, “his temperament killed it.” Undaunted, James set out to attract the wealthy and titled women for whom he wished to work, although he occasionally created clothes for friends like the aesthete Stephen Tennant, who once described an outfit designed for him by James as having “an ineffably limp shirt of creamy satin like ultra, ultra Devonshire cream mixed with mother-of-pearl.”

Even at the very outset of his fashion career, James faced financial difficulties caused, it must be said, by an almost total inability to live within his means — a pattern that remained with him throughout his life — and a frequently belligerent approach to customers. In an attempt to help him, Lord Snowdon's mother, the Countess of Rosse, brought a prospective customer to see him. He looked her up and down and dismissed her with the waspish words, “I couldn't possibly make anything for a frump like you. You can't even walk properly.”

Financial problems were probably the reason James moved to Chicago, where, in the mid-1920s he began to make hats under the name of Charles Boucheron, his father having forbidden him to use the family name for a profession of which he totally disapproved. (It was only because of the wealth and social power of his Chicago family connections that James was able to get away with it, though Charles James, a true iconoclast, felt that the rules — any rules — did not apply to him). By the early 1930s, he was using his own name and beginning to attract the sort of wealthy and elegant clients he sought, who were not frightened off by the pretentiousness of his description of himself as a “sartorial structural architect.”

But what was it that made Charles James a legend in his time and one of the few figures whose greatness was acknowledged by all of his peers?

For Cristóbal Balenciaga, he was “the only dressmaker who has raised [fashion] from an applied art to a pure art form.” James Galanos said, “a single James creation is worth the whole output of a 7th Avenue year's work.” And, for Christian Dior, James was, simply, “the greatest talent of my generation.”

None of these statements one would disagree with. But the most important catalyst of James’ achievement must not be forgotten. I refer, of course, to the women who were his loyal customers and, in many cases, stuck with him despite his frequent refusals to hand over garments which had been pre-ordered (and pre-paid) for a special occasion until the event was well over; his stratospheric prices; and his constant demands for more money to keep his atelier going. All this while, he lived in luxury at the very best hotels, ordered room service endlessly, and insisted, as Diana Vreeland once told me, on fresh flowers daily.

But America's richest and most socially prominent ladies of fashion put up with it all. Mrs Harrison Williams (later, Mona Bismarck), Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, “Babe” Paley, Mme Arturo Lopez-Willshaw and Millicent Rogers, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, spent huge amounts with him and on him up to the late 1970s.

In the 1950s, a big ball gown could cost $1,250 (about $10,000 in today's dollars) and be worn only once. It was a time when grand parties and balls were regular events on the New York social scene. And the man who provided the most stunning evening gowns, as well as perfectly tailored formal daywear, was Charles James. Virtually everything that bore his label was an entirely unique artefact, the result of years of painstaking experimentation, ruthless rejection and hard work. It was said that his workforce were even occasionally locked in the workroom, with the designer, overnight if he felt they were not working hard enough.

This was no hardship for James, who was a creature of the night in every way. In the 1970s, he began a collaboration with illustrator Antonio Lopez and his partner Juan Ramos to create a drawn record of the James oeuvre, which took ten years to complete and was often a late-night — sometimes, all-night — enterprise. James required a slim boyish figure to model his clothes and that's just what he got when, one night, Lopez went down to 23rd Street (then, not the most salubrious area in New York by any means) and found a youth called Juan Hernandez, who had the perfect figure and height to wear the clothes.

Which of these clothes will a visitor to the Met exhibition see? Marvellously enough, examples of virtually everything James ever did. Later in life, he reclaimed much of his output and persuaded his closest customers to gift his garments to the Brooklyn Museum, which, in turn, gifted them to the Met. Millicent Rogers gave everything to the Brooklyn Museum, including the toiles and sketches of his most famous dress of all, the clover leaf ball gown, which, along with everything else in the museum’s James holdings, has come to a permanent rest at the Met.

Surprisingly, perhaps, to those who are used to the large volume of clothing churned out by today's fashion industry, over the course of a career that spanned 45 years, James produced less than 1,000 garments and never thought of fashion on a seasonal cycle. In this, he was very much like Azzedine Alaïa. Both turned their backs on the endless search for novelty and mindless change, an approach that, even in Charles James' time, had begun to dominate the international fashion industry. Instead, James was content to spend his energies and thoughts on developing and refining the ideas that mattered to him. He was right to do so and we are lucky that he did. Even if they had little link with popular street fashion of the times, his creations have survived, not only because they are so totally original, but because they have the intellectual integrity of architecture, which was an immense influence on his thinking throughout his life.

For James, despite his brilliantly original colour palette (yellow-blue with moss green; shell pink, lavender and lime) it was all about shape and how he could use a garment to change the shape of the wearer by simply manipulating material. The taxi dress, the figure-eight skirt, the quilted satin jacket — all, and many more, are now on show in New York in this standard-bearer of an exhibition, which really should not be missed.

“Charles James: Beyond Fashion” is on view until 10 August 2014 at The Costume Institute’s new Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The accompanying catalogue, "Charles James: Beyond Fashion," is published by Yale University Press.

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