Eric Wilson

Now You Know: Charles James Was a Designing Genius—with an Ego to Match

Now You Know: Charles James Was a Designing Genius—with an Ego to Match
Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by John Rawlings/Vogue/Cond Nast Archive

Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson's new weekly column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one quick read. Each Wednesday, he'll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it's relevant right now. We kick off with a little lesson on Charles James, the legendary designer being heralded at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute beginning May 8. Enjoy!

In the history of American fashion, there are few designers who retain as great esteem inside the industry, and yet who fell into such a general state of obscurity, as Charles James. The late, magnificently talented and temperamental couturier, an obsession among curators and collectors for decades, was one of the more complicated figures of mid-century design, revered as a genius of dressmaking techniques by no less than Balenciaga and Christian Dior. James was a coveted designer to clients like Babe Paley (pictured above) and Millicent Rogers, though his caustic personality often put him at odds with financial success and contributed to his fading reputation in his later years, up until his death in 1978.

But who was Charles James, and why do his creations—less than a thousand pieces were completed during his 40-year career, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—still fascinate designers from John Galliano to Zac Posen? He has been described alternatively as a perfectionist and an egotist. His intricately sculptured gowns often took years to perfect, their construction resulting from myriad complex mathematical calculations and the inspired layering and placement of fabrics and petticoats. Dior himself cited the work of James as a precursor to his wasp-waisted New Look. Part of their enduring appeal, as two upcoming fashion exhibitions dedicated to James will likely reveal, is that James designs simply look as remarkable today as they would have at the height of his popularity in the 1950s. Although James liked to think of his designs as "timeless," they most certainly call to mind a very specific era of swanlike society that, like his work, has all been but forgotten to a younger generation of designers.

"I don't think that my work has ever been out of date, in that it was only ahead of its time, therefore it was only a matter of waiting until it became a New Look," James said in a 1972 article in Interview.

James (pictured above), who was born in England in 1906, began his career as a milliner in Chicago, where his mother hailed from a socially prominent family, before opening a series of dressmaking businesses in New York, London and Paris, beginning in the 1920s. He created his most famous designs in New York from 1947 to 1955, for clients including Rogers, Dominique de Menil, Austine McDonnell Hearst and Gypsy Rose Lee, the bulk of which were later accumulated and donated to the Brooklyn Museum as the basis of the Charles James Collection.

The Brooklyn Museum's costume collections were transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning in 2009, and formed the basis of the Met’s Costume Institute exhibition, "Charles James: Beyond Fashion." A separate exhibition, "A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James," opens at The Menil Collection in Houston on May 31, featuring daywear and evening dresses, as well as furniture, all designed by James for Dominique de Menil, the renowned art collector and philanthropist. (In 1950, the de Menils hired James to decorate the interior of their Philip Johnson-designed home in River Oaks.) All of this renewed interest in the designer has inspired Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company to reach a deal with the James family to license his name for future collections, with Weinstein's wife, Georgina Chapman of Marchesa, as a creative consultant.

James, who had interests in architecture and ready-to-wear, but not much in business, was known for laboring intensively on the structure of his designs, many of which had names like Swan, Butterfly or Clover Leaf, the latter so-called because of the voluminous quad shape of its full skirt. It looks simple, with its neatly shaped silhouette, but took roughly 30 pattern pieces to construct. The absolute highlight of the Met exhibition is a gallery of 15 dresses, each accompanied by a robotic-controlled video display that serves almost as an x-ray of each dress, offering blueprints of their patterns and detailed renderings of their fabric content. (Warning: The videos take a considerable amount of time to digest, and the gallery is kept exceedingly dark in order to preserve what is left of the delicate silks, so bring your reading glasses.) James has also been credited, among other things, with having introduced an early version of the puffer jacket and, at one point, for having made the zipper fashionable.

While he was widely recognized for his design genius in his own time, quite often regarding himself as such, James was also notoriously difficult. He refused to serve clients based on their appearance, and he fell out with several potentially lucrative manufacturers of coats and children's wear, leading to litigation that fairly ruined him. He was known for having spent the last 14 years of his life working from a studio in the Chelsea Hotel, attended by a busy coterie of still devoted friends, and a pet beagle named Sputnik.

Take a look at Charles James' gorgeous creations in this photo gallery.

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