Charles James (1906-1978) has achieved cult status in the field of fashion as much for his legacy of unforgettable clothes as for the magnetic force of his complex personality and the unorthodoxy of his creative process.
Diana Vreeland loved to say about him: “He’d rather prefer to do, undo and redo a dress for a party, than finally seeing it worn at that very party”.
Not having had formal dressmaking training, he developed his own method based on mathematical and sculptural concepts. His creative effort was the result of pushing the boundaries of conventions for his own accomplishment. Despite his artistic perfectionism, he had personal demons, which led him to behave erratically and irresponsibly during all his life. Anyway his clients were always there to support him, artistically and financially.
His oeuvre took many forms with countless variations: some garments were elegant and timeless, while others were odd and controversial, some incorporated the essence of modernity, while others were updated versions of Victorian fashions. He considered the “air” between the body and the fabric to be his crucial design focus. There was another constant of his style: the use of vibrant colors, mixing different fabrics surfaces to create new architectural and metamorphic shapes, which followed slavishly the curves of the female body. He was the one who invented an elegant version of the padded jacket and the “taxi dress”, which could be easily pulled out, seating on the back-seat of a car.
“Charles James: beyond fashion” is not surprisingly the title of the exhibition at MET of NY, from May 8th to August 10th, which pays tribute to the countless Charles James’ gifts to the female world. The exhibition will take place at brand new Anna Wintour Costume Center, a 4,200-square-foot space featuring a flexible design that lends itself to frequent transformations, a zonal sound system, innovative projection technology, and wireless connectivity.
The exhibition testifies the avant-garde vision of Charles James’ fashion: one hundred dresses (the ones captured through the lens of Cecil Beaton) will be on display, combined with videos and animations, which will help visitors to focus on the perfect manufacture of James’ creations.
Even if he produced an innumerable variations of silhouette, his own credo was that there were a limited number of this shapes. He reused and reworked forms throughout his career trying to develop them into new compositions and different combinations.
The key shapes he designed from 1936 to 1960
1936: he use the bias-cut, typical of the period to produce his first example of sculptural dress.
1941: He creates “La Sirène”: a dress that suggests, with its geometrical stitches and drapery an anatomical feature, halfway between a human skeleton, a reptilian and a crustacean.
1944: He creates the famous “Ribbon dress”, first suggested by Paul Poiret, using only uncut wide ribbons, from hem to shoulder.
1945: He uses bias-cut and drapery, creating a sort of twist in the pelvic zone of the dress, calling attention to the reproductive organs. He show again his obsession for the human body, in particular for his anatomy.
1947: He uses the pannier drapery, in vogue during 1912 – 1914 to create a sculptural dress, which can look different from every angle, like a three-dimensional sculpture. Draping fabrics into sculptural poufs was a technique used by James throughout his carrier.
1948: Again the human body inspires him to create a visible petticoat and a full skirt over it, which refers to sexuality and procreation. The folded fabrics of the full skirt and the draped silk of the petticoat allude to the female genitalia.
1950: The circle. He invents a term that now can be considered older age in fashion: cocoon. His round-shaped dresses are an expression of rebirth and methamorphosis, as the nature herself could be the protagonist of every stich, fold and volume.
1950: Arc sleeve. It derives from the 1830′ Romantic style and they were worked out with a compass, giving the bust biomorphic form.
1951: The quadrant. Another mathematical concept, which obsessed his style, mostly the evening gowns. They were a reminiscent of Victorian polonaise drapery (known as “puff”). The ball gowns embodied a timeless elegance and were draped with sophisticated methods, in order to support the quadrant shape.
Other universal element were used to create James’ masterpieces (from the elegant figure of a swan to the intricate roots of a tree, to create a sophisticated petticoat or the butterfly or the diamond), always aimed to honor the mystery behind our universe and our creation.
My final thoughts
Charles James was an artist, a philosopher, a designer, an avant-garde thinker and a scientist.
I truly recommend the visit of Charles James’ exhibition at the Met Museum, because we should never forget the genius of this fashion designer, who was admired by other designers, and as in Christian Dior’s own words was “the greatest talent of my generation.”