Gowns of Glory - 'Charles James: Beyond Fashion'

Mrs Miniver, Sundae, Charles James, ballgown, illustration by Mark Hughes
Mrs Miniver in her Charles James ballgown at the Met Ball with Sundae. Illustration by Mark Hughes.

Charles James, Evening gowns worn by models
Charles James, Evening gowns worn by models, as carefully positioned as a scene from Vermeer, Vogue, 1948, by Cecil Beaton. The interior is at French and Co, New York, and is one of the most famous fashion images in the world. Copyright Cecil Beaton and Condé Nast.

Finally the Metropolitan Museum in New York has honoured greatest of all American couturiers, Charles James (1906-1978) with an exhibition worthy of his extraordinary vision. Quite simply, he was an engineer in fabric and fur, ‘enhancing the figure by line and cut’ rather than being on trend. His modus operandi was, wrote Elizabeth Ann Coleman, author of The Genius of Charles James (1982) that he understood that “art steps on where nature fails”’ and had more skill and creative imagination than most of his peers. Christian Dior described James as “the greatest talent of my generation,” and Balenciaga opined that he was the ‘only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art.” For 30 years his flame burned bright and he honoured (yes, it was that way round) some of the most glorious women of the era of elegance and glamour with his creations – Millicent Rogers, Babe Paley, Mme Lopez-Willshaw, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Marlene Dietrich – and Gypsy Rose Lee. Each gown was a triumph of architecture, designed to the last inch with callipers and equations, cut and draped with the genius of an uber-perfectionist.

His friend Bill Cunningham recalled that he had no sense of humour about himself – always a tricky one – but was, as is the way in fashion, amused himself at other people’s expense. Once, when a furrier consistently failed to understand his corrections for the pattern of a fur coat, he walked into their storeroom waving a jar. “Either you construct the way I want or I’ll open this jar of moths,’ he said triumphantly. Undoubtedly this was at Gunther Jaeckel, for whom he designed a line of fur coats, signing the contract with them in 1953 and working with a variety of furs, including ranched mink.

Charles James, 1934, coat, silk, with a sable or marten collar
Charles James, 1934, coat, silk, with what looks like a sable or marten collar. Accession number 2013.405 (Question, why don’t they identify the fur??).

Charles James, ‘Leopard fur’ cape, lined with silk, 1944
Charles James, ‘Leopard fur’ cape, lined with silk, 1944, The Metropolitan Museum, Accession Number 2009.300.203. It is developed from the same block as the black evening cape donated to the Brooklyn/Met by Millicent Rogers in 1949.

(It looks more like jaguar to me ... and would certainly make sense given the difficult of importing from Western, Eastern Europe and Africa during the 1939 – 1945 WW2 years.) The Met holds some good examples of James’ ability with fur – to create a great shape rather than just ramping up the conspicuous consumption. His leopard-skin cape lined with silk from 1944 reflected the craze for leopard then, expressed so clearly in the pages of Vogue; this however has silhouette and form rather than lazily suggesting the ‘femme fatale’ of the Hollywood horror hit Cat People, the lovely Serbian Irena with her inner panther, which hit the movie houses in 1942 and was significantly light on irony.

Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1942
Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1942.

‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion’ goes some way to make up for the sheer ghastliness of his final years. Having fought with nearly everyone and physically and mentally sustained by uppers, he lived at the Chelsea Hotel, forgotten by the fashion press, but honoured by real fashion people – and in particular, the younger generation like Bill Cunningham,  illustrator Antonio Lopez and designer Halston – all of whom, working with James, contributed beyond measure to the legacy of this brilliant and complex maestro.

Antonio, Charles James’s 'Lobster' dress modelled by Jerry Hall, 1981
Antonio, Charles James’s 'Lobster' dress modelled by Jerry Hall, lying on a Dali inspired sofa by Charles James too, 1981

Harvey Weinstein has bought the Charles James label. Absolutely zero comment; good luck finding the person who can truly say they have the designer’s DNA. They will have to be an absolute genius and that, as we all know, is rare. There are three people who could do it – Azzedine Alaia, Antony Price and Mark Hughes – the latter a hop skip and a jump away at SCAD in Atlanta, where he is a professor of fashion.

Charles James: Beyond Fashion, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 6th to August 10th 2014.


Harold Koda et al, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, Yale University Press, 2014

Elizabeth Coleman, The Genius of Charles James, The Brooklyn Museum, New York 1982 is extremely good and a must have collectable– doing the groundwork for the newer book and by the curator who built and archived the Charles James collection at The Brooklyn Museum.

Read the excellent Judith Thurman on How Charles James elevated American fashion’, the New Yorker, May 5th 2014.


The Genius of Charles James at the Brooklyn Museum, hosted by Halston, October 14th 1982. Lovely to see the clothes moving as they are meant to - not to be missed! VideoFashion!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ry389pJ7r64

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Gowns of Glory - ‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion’