Charles James’s Day Has Arrived

from The Fashion Makers, copyright Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris, 1978

Unless you are living under a rock, you know that the long-awaited Charles James exhibition at the Met opened to the public today.  The press preview was earlier this week, and already there are enticing images showing up on fashion blogs.  It really does sound like the fashion event of the summer, and unlike last year’s Punk fiasco this show is getting rave reviews all around.

There are enough recaps of the life and career of Charles James that I’m not going to add to the noise.  I’ve been reading about him all morning, and after a bit all the articles started sounding the same.  Most of them used the same “iconic” Cecil Beaton photograph, and most mentioned the same three garments – the taxi dress, the white satin puffed evening jacket, and the clover ballgown.  It began to feel as though I was reading the same press release over and over.

It rather bothers me that they all keep referring to James as “forgotten.”  No, his is not a household name, but few dead designer’s names are.  Ask your non-fashion-history-nut friends if they know Claire McCardell or Bonnie Cashin or Paul Poiret or Adrian.  I’m pretty sure they will not know any of the names unless they are older and can remember them from when the designer was active.

Of course there are the dead designers whose labels live on such as  Chanel and Lanvin and Dior and Balenciaga and Saint Laurent.   But with the exception of Chanel, whose image is kept alive by the company, and Saint Laurent who only recently died, are the others really remembered?  Can your average fashion consumer tell you about Jeanne Lanvin?

To people who love fashion history, James has never been forgotten.  Even during the last years of his life when he was pretty much not working, he was sought out for inclusion in a book called The Fashion Makers, by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris, published in 1978, the year of James’s death.

Most of the excitement surrounding the exhibition seemed to be centered on his lavish ballgowns, but my favorite James designs are his tailored suits, coats and dresses.  After seeing the collection of Ann Bonfoey Taylor last year (she had fourteen James garments) I came to greatly appreciate the skill that man had in cutting a bodice and sleeve.

Photo from Fashion Independent, copyright Phoenix Art museum, 2011

Start at the waist and let your eye follow the seamline all the way to the sleeve cuff.  Then note how the bust dart is actually part of the sleeve.

Photo from Fashion Independent, copyright Phoenix Art museum, 2011

This is the back of the shoulder of another garment.  See how the seam curves to fit the shoulder.  The seam that cuts across the bottom of the shoulder continues on to the front and is the princess seam of the bustline.

Photo from Fashion Independent, copyright Phoenix Art museum, 2011

Here are two coats, showing details.  The checked coat is cut on the bias, with the set-in belt cut on the cross grain.  How effortless he made a very complicated construction look!

I hope that many of you will be able to visit the Met this summer to see this show.  Until I saw the work of Charles James in person, I did not really understand just how great it was.  There is a reason everyone keeps referring to him as a genius.



Filed under Designers

26 responses to “Charles James’s Day Has Arrived

  1. Thanks for the great link to your post on Anne Bonfoey Taylor. I’d never heard of her, would never have searched for her — so, hurrah for blogs & links! That cross-body bag she wore with her ski suit — brilliant.
    The book High Style, from the Brooklyn Museum, has some great Charles James dresses with photos of them being worn by the original owners — that kind of documentation (like the Anne Bonfoey Taylor exhibit) really brings them to life.


  2. Danette

    I am fortunate enough to have seen both of these exhibits. Seeing them curated so contrastingly really makes one realize the timelessness of style, how craftsmanship continues to inspire! Thanks for this great piece.


  3. Christina

    The tailoring is delicious. I gather the Charles James label is to be re-launched.


    • Yes, by Harvey Weinstein with his wife, Georgina Chapman as the designer. For the life of me I can’t see what she’ll be doing that is not already being done at Marchesa (Chapman’s label).


      • seweverythingblog

        Love this post! I’m a western fashion history nerd, too — I think. My nerdiness increases wonderfully with your posts. Thank you!
        Georgina Chapman’s ball gown aesthetic is beads, embroidery and tulle. James’ style was innovative manipulation of plain fabric; I’m a fan of Marchesa and I think that Georgina will bring back that look to the House.


      • i agree totally – it has been done-as “they” have exclainmed for years! as a former fashion director/editor -merchandiser-for more than 30 yrs.-“re inventing” a classic is just always adding a personal touch that is not appropriate –being iinspired is not the same thing as re-inventing a classic! as you have stated brilliantly- it has been done! thank you


  4. Hi Lizzie, having been to the exhibit now, it truly is spectacular! When I’m finished decompressing I’m going to post my impressions and pictures. I would go back tomorrow if I could!


  5. I agree that regular folk don’t know of Charles James and I think the language “forgotten”, “iconic” is used to make the average person interested or curious enough to attend the exhibition. If the exhibition were to rely only on the likes of us who know of his mastery, there would not be a lot of ticket sales. This is being marketed as the Met’s Blockbuster movie of the summer! It’s Spiderman! 🙂
    Looking forward to seeing and marveling myself.
    Hmmm Georgina Chapman, not so sure…


  6. Lovely! Wish the ocean was a lot narrower at times like this.


  7. I love that you included photos of his day clothes. While the evening wear is incredible, I certainly could never imagine wearing it–like putting on a suit of armor! But the cuts of his day clothes are really inspiring…and something a humble seamstress might aspire to.


  8. Carrie

    The sculpting of that jacket shoulder is to die for! And you are so right–the notion that James is “forgotten” is so silly. (But if it sells tickets so that more learn of him, great).

    I also cannot in a million years see Georgina Chapman as James’ heir…


  9. Lynn

    I feel so fortunate that my vacation to NYC and this exhibit coincided! It was a fantastic exhibit, especially the way they deconstructed the ball gowns.


  10. I saw the exhibit today and while I knew about his ballgowns, I never knew his day clothes were so chic and beautiful. I love that some of them follow the lines of some 18th century menswear. The coats were beautiful and his personal ephemera was fascinating including a list of designers he didn’t like and celebrities he wished he could design for but never did.


  11. Irene

    Those day clothes you shared are fantastic! Look at that jacket, wow. And thank you for linking to that post about Ann Bonfoey Taylor, it’s such a treat to see the garments worn in photographs.
    I’ll be going to see the exhibit soon, I’m so excited to see some of his creations in real life!


  12. Dear fuzzy(if i may) reading about James /Met – opening…led me to call a fashion expert of that day…interesting to know how much he “got away with”professionally-modeling his own ball gowns-as he dismissed leading models of the time as he felt they were “inferior”…these buyers were a tough group!-i know – i was groomed in the business,you made such a valid point- we all must stop and try to recall the time frames and social “atmosphere”when this all occured! i can only imagine the discussions after the “showing” of the collection!?writing the orders must have required a martini for some of shows a tolerance for “creative licence”-absolutly NO value judgements from me…however i still think Babe Paley must have looked better in her own dress…facinating stuff- I must admit however,while not forgotten…Mr. James was until now a dim memory -I do think the “Old Pros”held Claire , Bonnie , in high esteem..-love your commentary-very few will be so objective…thank you!


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