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Charles James

Today I want to talk about Charles James — if not the actual first, definitely among the first American Couturier!
Yes you heard right, we had a couturier back in the 1930’s.

I certainly found out about him years later than I should have.
This genius couturier was Charles James.

36 years after his death, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited Charles James’s 78 magnificent Ball Gowns in 2014, under Anna Wintour’s direction.

James was the son of a British Army officer & a wealthy Chicago socialite, and started his career in fashion in Chicago. He opened up a millinery shop in Chicago before he moved to New York.

He was active from 1930’s to 1960’s, and during this time he only made 200 original and groundbreaking designs. He lived gloriously with many achievements and successes, but also faced many feuds and failures in his lifetime as well.

Poiret, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, and Dior recognized his genius; and he was inspired by his friends who were surrealist contemporaries: Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí.

His works influenced Christian Dior’s New Look in the early 1950’s.
Dior called him “The greatest talent of my generation”.

James was best known for his elaborate evening gowns, which were built upon complex structures, such as the four-leaf-clover gown and the telephone evening dress. But he also designed the first sports bra for Mary Ellen Hecht, a department store heiress who was a niece of Gertrude Stein.

He had many new ideas and he patented them too, but unfortunately patents in the fashion industry don’t really protect the designers original designs! Especially after fast fashion took over the industry.
But we still can enjoy and inform ourselves about fashion genius masters.

His inventions include:

1. Wrap Dress
(Yes it was invented first by Charles James, but Diane von Furstenberg made it popular in the 70’s)
2. Down Puffer Jackets
His famous white satin eiderdown “Puffer” evening jacket from 1937.
3. Sports Bra
He designed the first sports bra for Mary Ellen Hecht, a department store heiress who was a niece of Gertrude Stein.

His use of materials such as pellon, felt and cellophane were way ahead of his time.
He was also among the first to use a zipper in a dress, and certainly along with Schiaparelli, the first to use zippers exposed as decoration.

It’s been said he also invented the strapless dress, but that was actually invented by another French/American Couturier, Mainbocher.
Mainbocher was claimed to be the first American Couturier, but that isn’t true as he moved his business from Paris to New York in 1940, ten years after Charles James being active as a couturier.

He named all his dresses, and among them there are many iconic looks that you might recognize.
One of his most famous dresses, the Taxi dress made in 1932 was considered the most modern frock to date.
Its name reflects the designer’s concept that a modern woman should be able to change in a cab (we’ve all done it :).

The Taxi Dress
The Butterfly Dress
The Swan Dress
La Sirene Dress
The Clover Leaf Dress
The Diamond Dress

The year 1948 was the start of the golden age of American fashion, and James was the best.

He was a known homosexual but his marriage to a rich Texan divorcee helped him to produce more dresses, even though he spent more than he made in revenue.

No one denies James’ creative contributions, but he was also a singularly difficult man.
He was infamous for his poor business practices, financial matters, and bankruptcies
His marriage also dissolved in 1961.

He famously spent seven months developing a sleeve, but he was also capable of revising a dress over and over again up to and past the time of the event to which it was supposed to be worn.

His obsessive desire to perfect his work always battled against him.
His lack of time & money management, and not delivering his orders in time (or EVER!) had caused him to live in a hotel room penniless in his late years ‘till he died in 1978.

His works influenced generations of other designers, such as Dior, YSL, Halston, Schiaparelli, Zac Posen, Oscar de la Renta, Alexander McQueen,… and to this day I still see many of his influences on the runway.

So why haven’t we celebrated him, read or heard much about him before?

Until a few years ago, I haven’t ever heard of him, especially while I was in College studying Fashion!
He had never been published in books, Vogue or well documented!? Why?
I and we could learn so much from his techniques!

The truth is, and actually a great deal of a lesson for all of us, is that he made a huge enemy of Diana Vreeland, who was a pioneer and Editor in Chief of biggest magazines such as Vogue, Bazaar and had a big influence over WWD and all other publishing houses!

James was openly vocal and scandalized when his dress was put on the cover of Bazaar and never credited to him. He also accused Vreeland of stealing Parisian couture gowns and selling to American manufacturers to copy the design for much cheaper, and she would sell Ad pages to those manufacturers to profit from the magazines! This battle destroyed him. And he could not fight the coming of age of ready-to-wear clothing in the 60s.

No one could mention James in the fashion world, publish or exhibit his work even after he died in 1978.
Vreeland died in 1989, and Anna Wintour continued, with the magazine and her influence over the fashion world. But finally James’ amazing design entered the Metropolitan, but a little too late.

After meeting his work at the Met exhibition in 2014, Harvey Weinstein — the movie mogul (and famously convicted sex offender) revealed that he had signed a licensing agreement with James’ two children to reintroduce the label with new designs.

But the Luxembourg-based Luvanis company had already registered the trademark in numerous countries worldwide and sued The Weinstein Co. and James’ heirs. Weinstein eventually dropped his plan in 2016 and Luvanis and James’ children teamed to relaunch the label, although no products have yet been shown.
I wonder what would happen after all this pandemic era ends.


Have you heard about Charles James before?

Please leave a comment below & let me know!

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