Lost Icons I: Charles James
It is remarkable how few the name of one of the greatest designers of the 20th century turns up in fashion industry circles. Someone who was termed by both Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga as being the greatest talent of their generation, who inspired Dior’s infamous New Look, one of the most significant turns of pace in fashion history, as well as Versace, Zac Posen and Jacquemus today, and who, as noted faithfully by Michèle Gerber Klein, the author of one of his most renowned books, set the standard for the entirety of Western fashion.
As the cliché goes with great genius, Charles James was a man whose success was dampened by a sort of blind, unwavering commitment to self-sabotage, which manifested itself in the form of an extreme contrariness. He was selfish, disagreeable, snobbish and egotistical. He was also America’s greatest couturier, and wasn’t afraid to tell you so.
His dresses resembled naturalistic sculptures that capture with the same formidable elegance of Art Nouveau; every pleat an exercise in understated precision, every fold the promise of geometrical perfection, the fabrics exquisitely manipulated to appear almost alive, portraits of fluidity immortalized mid-movement into an array of surreal sculptures.
Harold Koda, former curator in chief of the Met’s Costume Institute, brilliantly synthesizes the genius behind James’ process – “He had the language of haute couture, but there were no rules. Instead he came up with bizarre resolutions. The way he constructed his pattern pieces was really hands-on. His work is more muscular than most designers because of the way he forced material to do things that Dior or Balenciaga would never imagine.”
During the peak of his fame in the 1950s, his dresses were the most expensive in the world. In 1996 he set the world record for American couture, with a mid-40’s gown selling for an astounding $49,450, a phenomenal figure in those days. It was what Charles always insisted on: his work was art, not mere fashion.
In a creative sartorial twist, James brought the combination of art and science to garment construction, raising the baseline expectations of what truly defines a couturier. Even Paul Poiret, grandfather of 20th Century fashion, symbolically passed down his crown before James’ infamous ribbon dress.
His shapes were bold, audacious, and complicated to wear, and so could only be worn authentically in relation to James’s original design and intent by women of intense grace and presence – something he was not afraid to voice in order to brush away interested, but unfortunately uncharismatic customers. Only women that naturally commanded a room were entitled to wear them.
This is but one of his many caprices. He was famously difficult. His greatest defect was a default in sociability, appearing snobby, haughty and disagreeable, which was of course not good for business – only he thought it was quite cute, as recalled by late Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.
Born into a wealthy family in Chicago, Charles James revealed early on a prodigious skill for music, as well as a notable aptitude for art and poetry. At Harrow, a famous boys boarding school, he met his lifelong friend and fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, who later in life introduced him to other artistic and cultural pacemakers of his generation, including Elsa Schiaparelli, Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, to name very few. Harrow is where James found himself – or at least his natural entourage; the artists on the fringes of society, the solicitors of the avant garde, the elitist bourgeoisie in cultural and artistic revolt - to his father’s shame and disappointment, sentiments that strained their relationship from as early as he can remember.
He was judged a reprobate; haunted by the abuse of his British army officer father, Ralph Ernest James, whose idea of immorality included Picasso and Thomas Mann. Well, if art is depravity then so be it, Charles accepted: “I was taught by my father to be completely degenerate.”
In 1925 he was placed to work in an architecture firm through his heiress mother’s connections, but left abruptly to become a milliner, opening up a shop on State Street, Chicago, at the tender age of 19 with absolutely no design training. Under the name Charles Boucheron, to stay his father’s fears of defiling the family name with associations to the dishonorable profession of hat making, Charles unconsciously created the first prototypes to what would later become his inimitable designs.
It was after his move to New York that James became a fully-fledged couturier, dressing the aristocracy, celebrities and high society. In a short period of time, he became renowned for the artistry of his designs, his experiments in draping, of which were the first ever wrap dress and the mermaid dress, creating sometimes fluid, sometimes quirky designs that either liberated or remodeled every curve of the human form with astounding innovation. In reinventing fashion he was showered with praise: he won two Coty Awards in 1950 and 1954, as well as a Neiman Marcus Award in 1953, he produced the designer Scaasi from his atelier, and numerous, grand exhibitions with prestigious institutes paid homage to his work.
His name would live on till today, beyond museums and history, if it weren’t for his one, very important fault – he was all art and no business; all the investors in the world could not save him from perpetual cycles of bankruptcy and destitution.
As noted by Jan Reeder, curator of the 2014 landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion,’ he was scattered, disorganized, and unsettled. Cases where he offended those in line to help were not uncommon. He was famous for starting multiple dresses that he never finished, and even ripping up finished dresses right in front of his client on the very evening she was to wear it if she were to utter the faintest critique. His inherently dramatic character (he famously hung himself for a boy and was cut down by neighbor Jean Cocteau) saturated not only his private life and creations, but also his businesses.
He was a man spurred on by a deep, powerful need to prove something to the world, and yet even a life filled with extraordinary achievements that leave indelible marks in both industry and culture cannot save a man from his own unconscious will to self-destruct. Perhaps it is simply yet another execution of the curse that follows great genius; a cruel, unforgiving default setting in nature that gears towards harmonious contra-balance. Charles James died poor and forgotten by everyone, the has-been creator that revolutionized the entirety of Western fashion.
At age 72 Charles was on his way to the Cabrini Medical Center where he died unceremoniously a few hours later. Two decades of obscurity couldn’t dull his inflated sense of self-importance. After all, his legacy stands, impervious to the work of the many great talents that followed; untouchable. Frail and dying from pneumonia, the architect of vraie couture made sure that even the ambulance attendants wouldn’t doubt for a second the man they had before them: “I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the western world.”