Last night was the fashion world’s answer to the Oscar ceremony: the annual New York Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Ball. Strike that, old mother Wintour the US Vogue editor has clearly banked enough chips on the New York social scene to have the Costume Institute named after her. I am always reminded of Ozymandias when I see names chiselled in marble on museum walls. After all, marble panels can be removed…
Anyway, the people La Wintour considers a la mode this season were all invited to tear a crab claw and possibly even look at the new exhibition unveiled last night at the Met. The subject this year is Charlie James: a British born couturier who set the world of fashion on fire albeit briefly between the 1930s and the 1950s. Charles James is an idol of mine. He was a genius manqué whose creative output was minimal but with maximum impact.
Dior said James inspired his New Look in 1947. Balenciaga said Charles James wasn’t just America’s greatest couturier: he was simply the world’s best. Much smoke has been blown posthumously up Charles James’s ass. In his lifetime he was a monster. James attended Harrow with contemporaries Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant and Evelyn Waugh. He was expelled for a ‘sexual escapade’. Aged nineteen, Charles James opened a hat shop in Chicago. He moved to New York and set up shop in a property owned by Noël Coward.
At the height of his fame, James had ateliers in Paris, London and New York. He dressed society swans Millicent Rogers, Babe Paley, Coco Chanel (no less), US Vogue editor Diana Vreeland and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Towards the end of his life, James was supported by Halston: the world’s first US fashion superstar. I adore Halston’s work. He was a pioneer of sport couture: sporty shapes in luxe fabrics. While researching Halston I met two very interesting men who knew Charles James and told stories that would make one’s hair curl.
First expert witness was New York costume jeweller Kenny Lane. He told me stories about Charlie James when he was destitute and living in New York’s seedy Chelsea Hotel in the gay district. Apparently Halston paid James to consult on a fur collection. They fell out – as James did with all his friends including Beaton and Vreeland – so when Halson unveiled the fur collection in a runway show Charlie James gatecrashed bearing a hat box. At the climax of the show, James opened the hat box and unleashed an escadron volante of moths.
The other expert witness was fashion illustrator the late Joe Eula who told me that when Charles James had an atelier on Bruton Street in London in the 30s opposite Hartnell (the property was bombed in the 40s and no longer exists) he would fit his couture gowns on Abyssinian teenage boys whose figures he approved of. He also borrowed gowns back from clients to wear to drag balls in London.
Of course the gossip is fun but James’s genius as a couturier is not open to debate. He was a perfectionist who would adjust the sleeve of a gown endlessly until the bill for alterations exceeded £20,000. He was also an innovator. James invented the quilted evening jacket a full fifty years before it entered mainstream fashion. He anticipated the DvF wrap dress by forty years inventing the ‘Taxi Dress’ so named because it was easy enough to slip on in the back seat of a New York cab.
James was well aware of his talents; persuading Millicent Rogers to donate twenty-four of her couture gowns to the Brooklyn Museum. But like his creative child Halston he was the victim of hubris. In 1957 his creditors closed-in and took away his business. In 1958 the Internal Revenue Services seized the contents of his showroom. In short James went bankrupt. At the time he was under the ‘care’ of Max Jacobson the notorious ‘Dr Feelgood’ who prescribed the sweet and elite with amphetamines.
In a rather bizarre twist, James had married an older Kansas heiress whose money he burnt through and left penniless. After the bankruptcy he said ‘I do not know if I did right to marry and ruin Nancy but the necessity of success and achievement came first’. To her credit James’s ex-wife Nancy stood by him despite taking their two children back to Kansas.
1964 saw the once great Charles James move into a room in New York’s seedy Chelsea Hotel. He was hooked on speed and increasingly bitter and disillusioned by the fashion business that had turned its back on him. For the rest of his life he turned to teaching; choosing pets such as fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez and kids from the FIT to mentor. His mission was to pass on his knowledge of couture and expose the follies of the rich customers who could celebrate or ruin a fashion designer’s career.
The Met Museum retrospective is called Charles James: Beyond Fashion. It was the title James chose for the memoir he never completed. When Charles James died in 1978, he said to the paramedic taking him away from the Chelsea Hotel ‘it may not mean anything to you but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western World’.
Charles James outlived his era but his legacy is plain to see in the Met’s Charles James: Beyond Fashion. James enhanced the female body while never diminishing the power of the lady wearing the dress. Some of his silhouettes would make Lady Gaga think twice but as a fashion visionary he was a Cassandra. The sights on the red carpet at the Met Gala evening would doubtless have had Charlie James spinning in his grave but this is for my next letter. Until next time…