After a two-year renovation, the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art will reopen in May 2014 as the Anna Wintour Costume Center. The accompanying fashion exhibition will be "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" highlighting 75 of his most notable designs produced between the 1920s and 1978. Sketches, pattern pieces, swatches and ephemera will round out this sartorial homage, showcasing the continuing influence of Anglo-American couturier Charles James.
Background in Brief
Born in 1906 to an American socialite and a British father, Charles James was raised in England. He attended Harrow School in Middlesex and became lifelong friends with the writer Evelyn Waugh, the author of Brideshead Revisited, and photographer Cecil Beaton (who created the images above & left).
James's behavior was less lofty and he was unceremoniously expelled during his third year for a "sexual escape." His frustrated parents finally packed him off at the age of 19 to his mother's hometown of Chicago, where he was promptly fired from his new job in architecture design, probably for sketching scarves while at his desk. He then launched his career as a milliner in 1926 under the name Charles Boucheron. In 1928, he moved yet again, this time to New York to try his luck; in addition to hats, he began making dresses for clients like the actress Gertrude Lawrence. 1929 saw him return home to Britain where it took him until the mid-1930s to finally find significant business success designing for European clients such as the French textile maker Colcombet and the American firm Lord and Taylor.
By 1940, he was back in the US again and based in New York City - and the next 15 years were to prove the reputation-making portion of his career. His social circle at the time was impressive and included Jean Cocteau, Stephen Tennant and Salvador Dalí; his talent was such that fellow designer Elsa Schiaparelli ordered clothing from him as did her great rival, Coco Chanel (who, unlike Schiap, didn't have to pay). Paul Poiret was also a fan, Christian Dior credited James with inspiring the New Look and Cristobal Balenciaga once remarked that "Charles James is not only the most eminent American couturier, but also the best, and the only one who has raised Haute Couture from applied art form to pure art form."
Old Techniques, New Ways
Where Balenciaga, Dior and Poiret had received formal training, Chanel and James were both self-taught. They also began their careers as milliners and later progressed into creating clothing. At which point, the similarities end. Chanel designed lightweight, practical clothing from a forgiving fabric that had previously been used only for men's underwear. Her jersey creations were favored by chic creatures who reveled in being comfortable and uncorseted. James, however, was kind of an anti-Chanel: instead of designing around the body, the body was made to act like a scaffold and support his elaborate gowns. Many of his designs used enough fabric to fill an entire football field, an astonishing 20 pounds of layer upon meticulous layer (upon layer upon layer) - all resting on a complex foundation of horsehair, buckram, taffeta, satin, and crinoline - and occasionally, a retro tie-back bustle. Victorian dressmaking techniques were a James favorite, as were methods borrowed from hat construction and architecture; some bustles were even dubbed "flying buttresses." He regularly used a plumb line, calipers and a compass; also, he wasn't shy about inventing solutions when need be, like melting plastic - a fashion first! - and shaping it to create special supports.
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- Lesley Scott