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The greatest unknown master of design |

Fashion and Beauty

The greatest unknown master of design

ALL THAT SHNAZZ - Alexei F. Villaraza - The Philippine Star

Charles James might not be a household name, but his design aesthetic is present everywhere. Because of him, the world now has the strapless dress, the wrap dress, the infinity scarf and the down jacket.


A couple of years ago, a friend and I had this crazy idea of starting our own clothing line. We had grown frustrated with our retail choices in Manila — with me insisting everything had to have the right cut to fit my lean frame, and he wanting clothes that had the right fabric and style. We went shopping for buttons and textiles somewhere in Quezon City, took the materials to a tailor near Rockwell and gave them specific instructions on what we wanted, from where it’s supposed to taper to the stiffness of the collar to the thickness of the cuff. We both loved what we had designed but later realized that we’d probably end up having clothes made more for ourselves than for others.

As any style savant would know, clothes make the man or woman. The design, how it fits and looks say a lot: a well-constructed piece has the power to turn heads and make you feel great, while a poorly constructed one can easily ruin both your day, look and chances of doing an #OOTD photo on Instagram.

One fashion designer whose work married perfect fit, structure and timeless style was Charles James.  Recognized among America’s crème de la crème from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, he was known by his mathematical approach to constructing revolutionary evening gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today. He was such a design genius that Christian Dior went on record to say that without Charles James he would not have had his most transformative moment as James inspired his 1947 New Look, which was a global sensation.

The Designer’s Designer

How could someone who was once described by Cristobal Balenciaga as “not only the greatest American couturier, but the world’s best and only dressmaker who has raised haute couture from an applied art form to a pure art form,” still be relatively unknown?

James might not be a household name like Coco Chanel, but his design aesthetic remains and is present everywhere. Because of him, the world now has the strapless dress, the wrap dress, the infinity scarf and the down jacket. He may also not have created thousands of pieces in his 40-year career as compared to today’s fashion design standards, but his talent stays alive through the work of others like John Galliano and Zac Posen, who continue to seek inspiration from him for their own collections. 

Top Filipino designer Rajo Laurel, himself a huge admirer of James, said, “I have been such a great fan ever since I learned about him as a design student. Through studying his work I have imbibed a strong sense of drama and a fundamental respect for the science of dressmaking. I admire his incredible construction and pattern skills. His clothes literally are like sculptures.”

It comes as no surprise then that an immense talent like James’ was put in the spotlight at the inaugural exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly opened Anna Wintour Costume Center in New York City.  Called “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” his greatest works produced during his career from the 1920s to his death in 1978 serve as the centerpiece of the glittering retrospective in the life and style of one of the most influential fashion designers in history.

The retrospective exhibition features James’ innovative designs, from ball gowns, dresses to hats. The amazing â€œTree Ball Gown,” â€œSwan Ball Gown,” â€œClover Leaf” and â€œButterfly” ball gowns are showcased on a circular platform where they can be admired from all sides, while projection screens are positioned behind the gowns for visitors to view x-rays of each gown with images telling the story of each dress.

The exhibit filled with James’ day and eveningwear is divided into four categories: Spirals & Wraps, Drapes & Folds, Platonic Form, and Anatomical Cut. The timeless â€œEvening Coat” from 1947 is displayed, as well as hats from the beginning of the designer’s career as a milliner, drawings, photographs and newspaper clippings.


Sculptor of cloth

James was born into privilege at Agincourt House in Surrey, England, in 1906. His father was an army captain, and his mother, a wealthy socialite from Chicago. His family moved to the Windy City when he was 19 and it was there he started designing hats, shaping them directly on his client’s heads.

In 1928, James moved to New York, where he opened a hat shop in Queens. By the early 1930s he’d begun designing clothes, applying millinery techniques like draping and cutting material directly on the body.

James viewed the female form as a framework on which to build his highly sculptural pieces. To give strength and shape to the luxurious fabrics he favored, he often underpinned them with millinery wire and buckram for grandiloquence. He saw the garments as sculpture, which he built by combining different fabric and textures.

He was so controlling about the presentation of his work that he often modeled his own pieces.  He also trained his clients on how best to move, sit, and dance in them. At the height of his career from the 1940s to 1950s, James’ roster of clients included the likes of Marlene Dietrich, burlesque star Gypsy Lee Rose, and Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers, who he dressed in $1,500 fairy-tale frocks, considered a fortune at that time.  R. Couli Hays, a New York society columnist and friend of James, said in an interview,  “One of James’ clients was the beautiful Countess of Rosse who took one of her very rich American friends to his salon. After looking at her, he said he couldn’t dress a fat frump like that. You really need some kind of presence to wear clothes as dominating as his.” 


Playing dress-up

The beauty of the dresses he made for his clients was how it was made rather than how it looked. Some were so structured that they were practically able to stand on their own. Vogue international editor-in-chief Hamish Bowles said, “He created some of the most extraordinary sculptural clothes of the century — the Swan dress and the Tree dress.”

The Swan dress was described to have an incredible structural silhouette. It has layers of petticoats and underneath, James put the strangest and most subtle colors together like orange, yellow and magenta, which gave off a shimmering, subtle effect.

The “Tree” dress, made for Marietta Tree in 1954, has 20 layers of material and 146 pattern pieces. James’ technique involved quilting various layers of materials together to create the structure he wanted. 

Considered to be one of his masterpieces was the 1953 “Clover Leaf” ball gown, a strapless dress in white satin and black velvet elegantly swirling out from the body, and constructed in four layers. According to co-curator Harold Koda, James designed the Clover Leaf ball gown for Austine Hearst, wife of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst Jr. It was made of 30 different patterns and weighed 10 lbs., but the physics of it was so carefully draped over the body that you could literally dance in this huge dress.

Austine’s son, Austin Hearst, recalls in an article his mother floating out of the house for special events in Charles James dresses, like a swan about to take flight. “James had a huge impact on my mother,” he says. “She spoke about him as if he were godlike, and she really did appreciate these things not like dresses, but like pieces of jewelry or pieces of art.”

James was known for his sexy silhouettes and typically worked with silk, velvet and organdy. He would also give it light, airy names like Petal or Butterfly, which was the exact opposite of how much it really weighed. Some of his gowns were so big and complicated that they weighed almost 20 lbs., suggesting that the fashions themselves were not made to accentuate a woman’s beauty, but were beautiful standalone sculptures themselves.

He also loved to party and surrounded himself with influential people, which included the most famous Vogue fashion photographer, Cecil Beaton. Since the women he hung out with enjoyed going out, he created the “Taxi” dress, which was designed so that a woman could easily change into it in a cab while she was on her way to a party. 


Paying the price of perfection

While he was a creative genius, James famously fell short on the business end of things. A wicked perfectionist, it was said he could not let go of the creation of a specific piece, even once spending $20,000 on a single sleeve. Unlike today’s designers who work on hundreds of pieces for a new collection each season, James constantly focused on the development of a particular concept, which meant he would work on one dress or one design for a very long time. Because of that, he was not able to complete contracts or bespoke orders. He was more focused and more interested in the creative process of clothing production than the business.  Nevertheless, James worked out a system for sizing standardization, created the idea of making several outfits with an adjustable fit, so that two sizes accommodated most figures, invented the idea of licensing and eschewed all the conventions of the traditional Paris atelier.

Many designers during that time such as his contemporary, Halston, ended up making millions following the protocol that James was trying to establish, but was just a little too ahead of the curve in the fashion world in the ’50s and ’60s in trying to create something that became common in the ’70s and ’80s.

In the end, with his obsessive quest for perfection, James had alienated nearly everyone in his career. He vacated his workshop and showroom in 1958 but continued to work in his rooms at the Chelsea Hotel, where he maintained a coterie of devoted friends, clients and admirers with whom he worked with and held court until his death in 1978.


Celebrating a true fashion legend

How does James assess his legacy? He said in an interview, “I’ve remained a myth because people don’t see evidence of my work enough. I know the dresses will go to museums once they’ve been created for people. Once it’s taken by the market, it’s destroyed by the market.”

Charles James, always ahead of his time, probably knew he’d have prominence again one day — and that day has come.

* * *

The “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibit will run until Aug. 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. For more information, visit

Follow The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Twitter and Instagram @metmuseum and the author @alexeivee.

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