Charles James’ Fashions are Precisely What They “Seam”

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The name Charles James stuck in my head several decades ago when I saw a photograph of eight nubile women wearing sumptuous ball gowns in what looked like a grand white-and-gilt drawing room. I don’t recall where I originally spotted this indelible image, but I know it was long before I moved to New York City. I certainly had no idea it was Cecil Beaton’s handiwork or that he made a career of capturing just this sort of ritzy upper-class tableau.

Beaton - Charles James Dresses 1948
Cecil Beaton’s 1948 photo of Charles James’ dresses

I knew, however, that the fabulous clothes were attributed to James. The glamour and the sophistication in the designs were unmistakable, and it was clear James understood these qualities. I kept him in mind when I did arrive in Manhattan and expected to run across scenes similar to the one Beaton had discovered. It never struck me that that the high-class, not to say hoity-toity, shutterbug had arranged it for what I’ve only now learned was an old classmate of his turned couturier.

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I learned that fact touring the recently opened—long overdue, in my estimation—Charles James retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center, rededicated earlier this month at the Vogue editor’s annual fundraising gala. The James-Beaton photo features prominently among the accompanying hullabaloo.

But what has that to do with the supposed purpose of this column: street fashion? It’s not likely that anything Charles James created is passing through the streets of New York at the moment or through any other city, for that matter.

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Well, it has a couple of things to do with the column. This became clear to me after I went through the two-part show on the day following Wintour’s fash bash, where, among others, many couturiers’ good friend Sarah Jessica Parker climbed the red-carpeted Met steps in a black-and-white gown with long train, towards the bottom of which the name Oscar de la Renta was embroidered in red.

Much can be said about the item (aside from its serving as a blatant commercial for its designer). The gown was carefully constructed and thereby paid homage to what some call James’s sculptural techniques and others call architectural. As such, it was one of the few gowns worn that night that did nod James’s way—if the photographs that showed up in various outlets are an accurate account of the spectrum. The only other one I saw on James’s lofty plane was another black-and-white entry by Prabal Gurung, who seemingly refrained from sewing his name on it.

The first principle of James’s gowns, suits. coats and dresses—such as the “Taxi” dresses built so they could be put on by a woman while traveling in a taxi—is the care with which he put them together. The seams are everything: In Charles James: Beyond Fashion, the show’s elegant catalogue featuring Beaton’s photograph on the cover, the English-born, eventually New York-based James is quoted saying, “I have sometimes spent twelve hours working on one seam; utterly entranced and not hungry or tired until finally it had, as if of its own will, found the precise place where it should be.”

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Walking through the two rooms in which the clothes are displayed, I observed (who wouldn’t?) how the seams of the clothes, often very few of them, are both noticeable and invisible. They shape the garments imaginatively, subtly, exquisitely. (A similar phenomenon was apparent when I went through the Madeleine Vionnet exhibition at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs a few years ago. Vionnet was a strong James influence, as was Paul Poiret.)

The manner in which the pieces were confected was enhanced and elucidated by digital animations courtesy of the renowned architectural firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Mesmerizing in themselves, the animations demonstrated at a leisurely pace how the often voluminous and sometimes quietly erotic designs came together.

The effect on me was startling after I had left the exhibit and was back on the street. So much of what I was looking at appeared shoddy, hastily made, cheap. Well, of course, they were cheaper than James’s apparel. He made his clothes for clients like Millicent Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee, clients with deep pockets (not necessarily pockets he stitched). Often, he contracted for them to be copied and sold elsewhere at reduced prices, but still.

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Looking around, I knew I couldn’t expect every, or even any, female passerby to look as if she had just stepped out of one of James’s ateliers. (There were more than a few ateliers, due to the designer’s frequent financial difficulties.) Yet, I did have a possibly completely unrealistic wish that clothes today would look sharper and crisper, no matter where they come from in America or other parts of the globe.

Incidentally, after scanning photographs taken at the gala and featured in publications the following days, it also occurred to me that the clothes on exhibit in the Met’s rooms put to shame many of gowns worn to the party by the female celebrities. I wondered whether any of the expensively attired women silently said as much to themselves. (Wintour asked men to show up in white tie and tails, and many did.)

So how else did James’s work affect my observation of what goes on in the streets? I had another totally unlikely thought. Would designers attending the James show appropriate any of his seminal ideas for contemporary clothes? Would a renewed James influence manifest itself in the near or even distant future? It couldn’t hurt, could it? It’s not that designers today are careless, but there’s an exaggerated degree of care detectable in the James collection here that wouldn’t hurt were it imitated.

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To close this column, let’s give James the last words:

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A good design is like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea at a time.

A great designer does not seek acceptance. He challenges popularity, and by the force of his convictions renders popular in the end what the public hates at first sight.