Nancy James wearing Charles James, by Cecil Beaton
The designer's name has gone much un-discussed outside of the fashion world but Charles James, the masterful sculptor and couturier to the A-list in the '40s and '50s, is once again the fashion name to know.
Why? Because the Big Apple’s favourite fashion exhibition space The Metropolitan Museum of Art is celebrating James’ illustrious career as if he were one of their own in the upcoming Charles James: Beyond Fashion extravanganza. The vast array of original gowns that quietly inspired the silhouettes we’ve come to know and love comes to the museum this month and in turn, inspires the theme of the Met Ball, which takes place on Monday evening.
After several years of contemporary and thus arguably more accessibly themed shows like Alexander McQueen, Punk and Prada & Schiapparelli, the Met returns its gaze to fashion history. So to bring your knowledge up to scratch before the big frockathon, here’s what you need to know about the designer who was so ahead of his time...
HE WAS DIOR AND BALENCIAGA’S FAVOURITE DESIGNER
The designer himself, shot by Cecil Beaton
Christian Dior called him “the greatest talent of my generation,” and Cristóbal Balenciaga considered James “the only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art.” Monsieur Dior even credited Charles James with having inspired his world famous New Look and his A-line coat appeared long before Yves Saint Laurent’s. His fashion credentials are truly extraordinary.
HE WAS BEST BUDS WITH CECIL BEATON
Cecil Beaton's shot of Charles James's gowns
You may feel unfamiliar with James’ gowns; though it’s likely his dresses will have been seen countless times in Cecil Beaton’s famous photograph for Vogue. Eight beauties in sumptuous silk and taffeta sit surrounded by mirrors and boiserie on eighteenth century chairs; the rich light and exquisite gloss of the photo sums up the woman Charles undoubtedly designed for.
HE MADE COUTURE SEXY
Charles James gowns - Getty
Charles James‘ haute couture was by no means stuffy, he described fashion as “what is rare, correctly proportioned, and, though utterly discrete, libidinous”. The show’s catalogue describes his designs as ‘hinting at the female sex’, brimming with inherent sexual miming via V-shape creases at groin or the ‘yoni-like opening of a coat collar’ (yoni being Sanskrit for vagina or womb).
HE WAS A PARTY BOY
Portrait of Charles James by Cecil Beaton
He prioritised a party lifestyle through both his art and lifestyle. via his designs, take The Taxi Dress which was built with zips spiralling around the body, making it easy enough to change in a cab. Not to mention his own party life where, according to the New Yorker, ‘for the friends in his clique – [Cecil] Beaton among them – beautiful manners and bad behaviour were the essence of chic’.
HE INVENTED HIS OWN VERSION OF THE FEMALE FORM
Two couture gowns at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute - Getty
Whilst his contemporaries Saint Laurent and Chanel focussed on women’s lives, James fixated on their proportions “The feminine figure is intrinsically wrong, and can be corrected only by good posture and fashion. The Venus de Milo… would be most unfashionable unless she had a good dressmaker”. He corrected flaws with nips, tucks, implants and cushions of air between skin and cloth. Scaffolding beneath the fabric imposed a silhouette upon the wearer, that had very little to do with their own shape. Both forgiving and merciless, he favoured the curvaceous shapes of fecund hips and abdomen but small bustlines and these creations could weigh-in at up to eighteen pounds.
No doubt this year's guests have been flexing their dress-wearing muscles in preperation. Take a look through the best of last year's looks whilst we imagine which Charles James-inspired pieces the stars will choose on Met Ball night...