Page 1

Charles Wilson Brega James (1906–78) was one of the most celebrated and sought-after couturiers of his day. Despite having no formal training, he created some of the most ambitious and dramatic couture of the twentieth-century and, with the breath-less support of the UK and American press, came to be the designer of choice for powerful clients including actress Marlene Dietrich and socialite Austine Hearst.

CHARLES JAMES DESIGNER IN DETAIL

DESIGNER IN DETAIL

The first title in a new series, Charles James: Designer in Detail provides exacting analysis of James’s most breath-taking designs – from magnificent eveningwear to chic accessories – exploring the geometric rigour and passion for materials that enabled the designer to create his revolutionary work. Featuring detailed illustrations, new garment photography and archival material, this is the perfect introduction to James’s stunning work – invaluable for dressmakers, designers and scholars alike.

CHARLES JAMES

“... if a stitch is crooked, the whole dress is torn to shreds.”

TIMOTHY A. LONG


Contents

First published by V&A Publishing, 2015 Victoria and Albert Museum South Kensington London SW7 2RL www.vandapublishing.com Distributed in North America by Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York © Victoria and Albert Museum, London All work by Charles James is © Charles B.H. James and Louise D.B. James. Courtesy Branded Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers. Every effort has been made to seek permission to reproduce those images whose copyright does not reside with the V&A, and we are grateful to the individuals and institutions who have assisted in this task. Any omissions are entirely unintentional, and the details should be addressed to V&A Publishing.

The moral right of the author has been asserted. Hardback edition ISBN 978 1 85177 821 8 Library of Congress Control Number XXXXXXX 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015

Introduction 8

Birth of a Legacy

10

Garments in Detail

46

Notes 152

Cover/ frontispiece: Charles James, ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ evening dress. Silk satin, silk velvet and silk faille. New York, 1953. V&A: T.276–1974. Given by the Art Students League of New York. (pp.100–105)

Further Reading

Designer: Lizzie Ballantyne Drawings: Leonie Davis Copy-editor: Alexandra Stetter Index: Sue Farr New photography by Jaron James, V&A Photographic Studio

Acknowledgements 159

Printed in xxxxx

V&A Publishing Supporting the world’s leading museum of art and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Preface 6

154

Glossary 155 Index 156


Contents

First published by V&A Publishing, 2015 Victoria and Albert Museum South Kensington London SW7 2RL www.vandapublishing.com Distributed in North America by Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York © Victoria and Albert Museum, London All work by Charles James is © Charles B.H. James and Louise D.B. James. Courtesy Branded Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers. Every effort has been made to seek permission to reproduce those images whose copyright does not reside with the V&A, and we are grateful to the individuals and institutions who have assisted in this task. Any omissions are entirely unintentional, and the details should be addressed to V&A Publishing.

The moral right of the author has been asserted. Hardback edition ISBN 978 1 85177 821 8 Library of Congress Control Number XXXXXXX 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015

Introduction 8

Birth of a Legacy

10

Garments in Detail

46

Notes 152

Cover/ frontispiece: Charles James, ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ evening dress. Silk satin, silk velvet and silk faille. New York, 1953. V&A: T.276–1974. Given by the Art Students League of New York. (pp.100–105)

Further Reading

Designer: Lizzie Ballantyne Drawings: Leonie Davis Copy-editor: Alexandra Stetter Index: Sue Farr New photography by Jaron James, V&A Photographic Studio

Acknowledgements 159

Printed in xxxxx

V&A Publishing Supporting the world’s leading museum of art and design, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Preface 6

154

Glossary 155 Index 156


Introduction

It is rare for a fashion designer to be defined as a genius. Charles James (1906–78) is one such designer. Nonetheless, as is often the case with this label, he is also a highly controversial figure, who has attracted the most ferocious detractors as well as the most generous supporters. Also, while many authors have recognized the importance of his contribution to the world of fashion, little evidence has been provided to define what specifically he has contributed and why he has been identified as a genius. The majority of the published material on James focuses on his tumultuous personality, his disastrous lack of business acumen (which eventually resulted in his ruin) and his illustrious client list. While his work has influenced many great fashion designers, from Christian Dior (1905–57) to Roy ‘Halston’ Frowick (1932–90) and Alexander McQueen (1969–2010), his particular contributions to fashion have been largely misunderstood, inadequately defined and almost entirely forgotten. James was primarily a designer of women’s couture and ready-to-wear garments and accessories between 1926 and his death in 1978. Although he began his career in the 1920s as a milliner and continued to design hats throughout his working life, he focused

on women’s fashion after 1930. The garments James produced include day and evening dresses and suits, as well as separate blouses, skirts, jackets, coats and capes. For brief periods, James also designed jewellery, scarves, belts, children’s clothing, knitwear, shorts, trousers (including a unisex pair), uniforms and costumes for the stage. Existing toiles, garments and images, as well as filmed interviews with James dating from the mid- to the late 1970s, confirm that he continued to design until shortly before his death. James made complex conceptual use of geometry and the principles of transformation when developing his unique designs. The realization of such concepts as finished garments was undertaken through a mathematical study of the female body, in the interests of improving the fit of his designs and the physical appearance of his clients, or, as he put it, correcting the ‘deficiencies of the human figure’.1 He put his theories into practice by undertaking experiments with novel shapes and materials, bringing an entirely new technique into the realm of fashion: sculpture. Borrowing from his past as a milliner, James sculpted life-size, three-dimensional body forms (pp.40–2), on to which he moulded fabric and other materials,

such as plastic, to create gravity-defying dresses. James’s drawings, patterns and, most importantly, the garments he made are the vital clues to the nature of his legacy. Only by looking at his work in detail can one understand the complexity of his design process and his (rightful) place as one of the most

innovative and influential fashion designers of the twentieth century. A systematic investigation of James’s reputation, as portrayed and received by the public and press, is also included here and is crucial to understanding the provenance of his status as genius and, in turn, his legacy as a designer.

James and his staff in his workroom at 699 Madison Avenue, New York, 1947. Photograph by Jerry Cooke.

8

9


Introduction

It is rare for a fashion designer to be defined as a genius. Charles James (1906–78) is one such designer. Nonetheless, as is often the case with this label, he is also a highly controversial figure, who has attracted the most ferocious detractors as well as the most generous supporters. Also, while many authors have recognized the importance of his contribution to the world of fashion, little evidence has been provided to define what specifically he has contributed and why he has been identified as a genius. The majority of the published material on James focuses on his tumultuous personality, his disastrous lack of business acumen (which eventually resulted in his ruin) and his illustrious client list. While his work has influenced many great fashion designers, from Christian Dior (1905–57) to Roy ‘Halston’ Frowick (1932–90) and Alexander McQueen (1969–2010), his particular contributions to fashion have been largely misunderstood, inadequately defined and almost entirely forgotten. James was primarily a designer of women’s couture and ready-to-wear garments and accessories between 1926 and his death in 1978. Although he began his career in the 1920s as a milliner and continued to design hats throughout his working life, he focused

on women’s fashion after 1930. The garments James produced include day and evening dresses and suits, as well as separate blouses, skirts, jackets, coats and capes. For brief periods, James also designed jewellery, scarves, belts, children’s clothing, knitwear, shorts, trousers (including a unisex pair), uniforms and costumes for the stage. Existing toiles, garments and images, as well as filmed interviews with James dating from the mid- to the late 1970s, confirm that he continued to design until shortly before his death. James made complex conceptual use of geometry and the principles of transformation when developing his unique designs. The realization of such concepts as finished garments was undertaken through a mathematical study of the female body, in the interests of improving the fit of his designs and the physical appearance of his clients, or, as he put it, correcting the ‘deficiencies of the human figure’.1 He put his theories into practice by undertaking experiments with novel shapes and materials, bringing an entirely new technique into the realm of fashion: sculpture. Borrowing from his past as a milliner, James sculpted life-size, three-dimensional body forms (pp.40–2), on to which he moulded fabric and other materials,

such as plastic, to create gravity-defying dresses. James’s drawings, patterns and, most importantly, the garments he made are the vital clues to the nature of his legacy. Only by looking at his work in detail can one understand the complexity of his design process and his (rightful) place as one of the most

innovative and influential fashion designers of the twentieth century. A systematic investigation of James’s reputation, as portrayed and received by the public and press, is also included here and is crucial to understanding the provenance of his status as genius and, in turn, his legacy as a designer.

James and his staff in his workroom at 699 Madison Avenue, New York, 1947. Photograph by Jerry Cooke.

8

9


Birth of a Legacy

Opinion is divided on Charles James.1 Elizabeth Ann Coleman Charles Wilson Brega James was born in 1906 in Camberley, approximately 60 kilometres (37 miles) south-west of London, into a wealthy family with connections to both the United Kingdom and the United States. His mother, Louise Enders Brega (1874–1944), was a socially prominent American from Chicago, who married Ralph Ernest Haweis James (1875–1964), a British military officer and instructor at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, Berkshire.2 James’s paternal grandfather was, incidentally, also involved in the military, having opened a military training school in the late nineteenth century and taught none other than Winston Churchill.3 The few surviving images of James’s childhood years present a typical upper-class Edwardian family, with a young James often shown dressed in starched white dresses or sailor suits, and sometimes pictured with his mother and two sisters. In one such image, taken in London in around 1914, James is holding an unidentified item, later described by one of his sisters as his ‘first invention’, suggesting that, by the age of

eight, Charles James had an interest in design.4 James spent his teenage years at a number of preparatory schools and universities in England, the United States and France, where his interest in the arts developed. While a pupil at the prestigious Harrow School in north-west London, for example, James mounted an exhibition of his paintings, had one of his musical compositions performed in the school chapel and, at his own expense, published his poetry, illustrated with woodcuts he had designed.5 At Harrow, James met and befriended fellow artist Cecil Beaton (1904–80), who would later play an important role in helping James find success as a fashion designer, as well as in his continuing legacy. Although James appears to have enjoyed some artistic success during these years, a family friend is recorded as describing him as ‘an obnoxious little boy’.6 Evelyn Waugh (1903–66), a childhood friend, would write that he ‘took tea en famille with Charles James and found him restless’.7 Perhaps the most infamous moment in James’s adolescence comes with his expulsion from Harrow School for a ‘sexual escapade’, although the exact details of the incident have never been documented.8

Charles James, ribbon cape, American Vogue (1 March 1940).

10


Birth of a Legacy

Opinion is divided on Charles James.1 Elizabeth Ann Coleman Charles Wilson Brega James was born in 1906 in Camberley, approximately 60 kilometres (37 miles) south-west of London, into a wealthy family with connections to both the United Kingdom and the United States. His mother, Louise Enders Brega (1874–1944), was a socially prominent American from Chicago, who married Ralph Ernest Haweis James (1875–1964), a British military officer and instructor at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, Berkshire.2 James’s paternal grandfather was, incidentally, also involved in the military, having opened a military training school in the late nineteenth century and taught none other than Winston Churchill.3 The few surviving images of James’s childhood years present a typical upper-class Edwardian family, with a young James often shown dressed in starched white dresses or sailor suits, and sometimes pictured with his mother and two sisters. In one such image, taken in London in around 1914, James is holding an unidentified item, later described by one of his sisters as his ‘first invention’, suggesting that, by the age of

eight, Charles James had an interest in design.4 James spent his teenage years at a number of preparatory schools and universities in England, the United States and France, where his interest in the arts developed. While a pupil at the prestigious Harrow School in north-west London, for example, James mounted an exhibition of his paintings, had one of his musical compositions performed in the school chapel and, at his own expense, published his poetry, illustrated with woodcuts he had designed.5 At Harrow, James met and befriended fellow artist Cecil Beaton (1904–80), who would later play an important role in helping James find success as a fashion designer, as well as in his continuing legacy. Although James appears to have enjoyed some artistic success during these years, a family friend is recorded as describing him as ‘an obnoxious little boy’.6 Evelyn Waugh (1903–66), a childhood friend, would write that he ‘took tea en famille with Charles James and found him restless’.7 Perhaps the most infamous moment in James’s adolescence comes with his expulsion from Harrow School for a ‘sexual escapade’, although the exact details of the incident have never been documented.8

Charles James, ribbon cape, American Vogue (1 March 1940).

10


Charles James: Designer in Detail

In addition, James mixed forms and patterns: a silk dress with a spiral-cut skirt (pp.92–5) was also created using the metacircle concept, by making a curved cut in the skirt piece between the central and outer circles, hence creating a spiral shape in the finished skirt. These garments show what can be achieved when the inner circle of a metacircle pattern remains at the centre of the larger circle; some of James’s most iconic dresses, such as the ‘Swan’, ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ and ‘Tree’ (pp.56–61), demonstrate that he was experimenting with variations of this concept over many years. By moving the inner circle off-centre in the skirt pattern and then attaching this metacircle to the main part of the skirt or bodice at an angle, a wide sweeping flare could be formed at the centre

A conic section – the curve created by the intersection of a plane and cone. This principle informs the design of James’s ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ dress (pp.100–105).

30

back of the skirt. James enjoyed the look of this cut, as it gave an impression of forward motion even when the garment’s wearer was standing still.82 James also produced another variation (pp.96–9) by turning the metacircle, so that the widest part of the skirt is on the right hip instead of at centre back. The ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ dress, which James considered his greatest achievement, utilizes this metacircle concept to complex effect.83 The ‘outer circle’ of the skirt is closer in shape to a square with rounded edges, and the inner circle is actually closer to an ellipse. The way in which this skirt is attached to the lower body of the dress shows similarity to a conic section – the curve created by the intersection of a plane and a cone (left). In the case of the ‘FourLeaf Clover’ dress, the plane of the outer skirt is not perpendicular to the central axis of the cone, causing the inner circle to change shape from a circle to an ellipse. Only when viewed from above can the overall effect of the design be seen. The ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ dress gets its name from its undulating four-lobed skirt, which appears far from flat when placed on a mannequin, but, surprisingly, is an almost flat piece when opened out. Among his contemporaries, the design production of Charles James is most closely related to that of Madeleine Vionnet, a couturier who, like James, has also been given the title of ‘genius’ by journalists and scholars. Vionnet started working in the fashion industry in the late 1890s, before opening her own dressmaking business in 1912. By the 1930s, she was an internationally recognized leader in the rarefied world

of haute couture, with decades of experience and a staff, at one point, of approximately 1,000.84 Both Vionnet and James were recognized as significant forces in fashion throughout the 1930s, and both featured repeatedly in the American and British editions of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In Madeleine Vionnet, an invaluable study of the life and work of the French designer published in 1998, Betty Kirke presents the results of her interviews with the designer and the decades she spent researching surviving Vionnet garments in museums around the globe. Featuring line drawings, patterns and even sewing instructions for a large collection of garments, this book shows how Vionnet developed various ideas into garments – an analysis that reveals close links with James’s working practice.

Both Vionnet and James designed a ‘one-seam’ dress around 1935; James’s example, as described above, wrapped around the body using a spiral seam, while Vionnet’s version utilized a single straight seam down the right side of the dress. In 1937, both designers created evening dresses by twisting and wrapping panels of fabric around the body. In that same year, both designers also made a twisted scarf that bears a similarity to the Möbius strip. Around 1940, both designers developed their own versions of the bifurcated skirt. Vionnet’s example shows that there was considerable interest in geometry present within the fashion industry prior to and contemporaneous with James’s career. Additionally, there are some similarities to how each designer approached design, as both would often drape garments directly on to

Thayaht (Ernesto Michahelles), ‘Une Robe de Madeleine Vionnet’, Gazette du bon genre (no. 8, 1922). New York Public Library.

Charles James, untitled. Paint on paper, 1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

31


Charles James: Designer in Detail

In addition, James mixed forms and patterns: a silk dress with a spiral-cut skirt (pp.92–5) was also created using the metacircle concept, by making a curved cut in the skirt piece between the central and outer circles, hence creating a spiral shape in the finished skirt. These garments show what can be achieved when the inner circle of a metacircle pattern remains at the centre of the larger circle; some of James’s most iconic dresses, such as the ‘Swan’, ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ and ‘Tree’ (pp.56–61), demonstrate that he was experimenting with variations of this concept over many years. By moving the inner circle off-centre in the skirt pattern and then attaching this metacircle to the main part of the skirt or bodice at an angle, a wide sweeping flare could be formed at the centre

A conic section – the curve created by the intersection of a plane and cone. This principle informs the design of James’s ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ dress (pp.100–105).

30

back of the skirt. James enjoyed the look of this cut, as it gave an impression of forward motion even when the garment’s wearer was standing still.82 James also produced another variation (pp.96–9) by turning the metacircle, so that the widest part of the skirt is on the right hip instead of at centre back. The ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ dress, which James considered his greatest achievement, utilizes this metacircle concept to complex effect.83 The ‘outer circle’ of the skirt is closer in shape to a square with rounded edges, and the inner circle is actually closer to an ellipse. The way in which this skirt is attached to the lower body of the dress shows similarity to a conic section – the curve created by the intersection of a plane and a cone (left). In the case of the ‘FourLeaf Clover’ dress, the plane of the outer skirt is not perpendicular to the central axis of the cone, causing the inner circle to change shape from a circle to an ellipse. Only when viewed from above can the overall effect of the design be seen. The ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ dress gets its name from its undulating four-lobed skirt, which appears far from flat when placed on a mannequin, but, surprisingly, is an almost flat piece when opened out. Among his contemporaries, the design production of Charles James is most closely related to that of Madeleine Vionnet, a couturier who, like James, has also been given the title of ‘genius’ by journalists and scholars. Vionnet started working in the fashion industry in the late 1890s, before opening her own dressmaking business in 1912. By the 1930s, she was an internationally recognized leader in the rarefied world

of haute couture, with decades of experience and a staff, at one point, of approximately 1,000.84 Both Vionnet and James were recognized as significant forces in fashion throughout the 1930s, and both featured repeatedly in the American and British editions of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In Madeleine Vionnet, an invaluable study of the life and work of the French designer published in 1998, Betty Kirke presents the results of her interviews with the designer and the decades she spent researching surviving Vionnet garments in museums around the globe. Featuring line drawings, patterns and even sewing instructions for a large collection of garments, this book shows how Vionnet developed various ideas into garments – an analysis that reveals close links with James’s working practice.

Both Vionnet and James designed a ‘one-seam’ dress around 1935; James’s example, as described above, wrapped around the body using a spiral seam, while Vionnet’s version utilized a single straight seam down the right side of the dress. In 1937, both designers created evening dresses by twisting and wrapping panels of fabric around the body. In that same year, both designers also made a twisted scarf that bears a similarity to the Möbius strip. Around 1940, both designers developed their own versions of the bifurcated skirt. Vionnet’s example shows that there was considerable interest in geometry present within the fashion industry prior to and contemporaneous with James’s career. Additionally, there are some similarities to how each designer approached design, as both would often drape garments directly on to

Thayaht (Ernesto Michahelles), ‘Une Robe de Madeleine Vionnet’, Gazette du bon genre (no. 8, 1922). New York Public Library.

Charles James, untitled. Paint on paper, 1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

31


Charles James: Designer in Detail

At the peak of his fame in 1949, James spent a month at a sculptor’s studio working on clay forms that resulted in a revolutionary new dress dummy, which anticipated a whole new posture. This was based on the measurements of one of his patrons, Millicent Rogers, and a long study of 150 years of costume to see what body measurements had not changed in that period of time. He incorporated into his new dress form the measurements that never changed. He also changed the waistline from parallel to the floor to one that dipped down in front and back. He shortened the measurement from the nape of the neck across the top of the shoulder to the front underarm pivot point to 10.5 inches (standard had been 11), which the US Department of Standards adopted.91 This may prompt us to wonder how exactly James came to create this sculpted form and the finished dress form, nicknamed ‘Jennie’, and what role such forms played in his study of the relationship between the body and the garment. James continued to study the human form until the mid-1960s, as can be seen in a series of photographs of the designer in his Chelsea Hotel workroom (right), which offer evidence of his interest in the subject. A closer inspection shows illustrations hanging behind James and laid on his work table, which appear to be part of a coherent group. Each drawing represents a human figure, drawn from different angles. Not all of the drawings are visible and the words written on them are not decipherable. However, horizontal lines are drawn through most figures, showing what appear to be measurements for that specific area of the body.

Contact sheet showing James at work in his studio at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1968. Photograph by Slim Aarons.

34


Charles James: Designer in Detail

At the peak of his fame in 1949, James spent a month at a sculptor’s studio working on clay forms that resulted in a revolutionary new dress dummy, which anticipated a whole new posture. This was based on the measurements of one of his patrons, Millicent Rogers, and a long study of 150 years of costume to see what body measurements had not changed in that period of time. He incorporated into his new dress form the measurements that never changed. He also changed the waistline from parallel to the floor to one that dipped down in front and back. He shortened the measurement from the nape of the neck across the top of the shoulder to the front underarm pivot point to 10.5 inches (standard had been 11), which the US Department of Standards adopted.91 This may prompt us to wonder how exactly James came to create this sculpted form and the finished dress form, nicknamed ‘Jennie’, and what role such forms played in his study of the relationship between the body and the garment. James continued to study the human form until the mid-1960s, as can be seen in a series of photographs of the designer in his Chelsea Hotel workroom (right), which offer evidence of his interest in the subject. A closer inspection shows illustrations hanging behind James and laid on his work table, which appear to be part of a coherent group. Each drawing represents a human figure, drawn from different angles. Not all of the drawings are visible and the words written on them are not decipherable. However, horizontal lines are drawn through most figures, showing what appear to be measurements for that specific area of the body.

Contact sheet showing James at work in his studio at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1968. Photograph by Slim Aarons.

34


Evening dress Silk crêpe. Label: ‘Charles James / 15 Bruton St. W1.’ London or Paris, 1939 (fabric designed 1938) V&A: T.274–1974 Given by Charles James

Few of Charles James’s designs feature printed textiles. For this garment, however, James used a fabric designed by artist Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) that features the artist’s own profile and that of his lover and muse, actor Jean Marais (1913–98). Set against a bright green background, stars and the handwritten name ‘Jean’ circle the couple’s faces; the design is a celebration of the relationship between the two men. While James spent most of the 1930s in London, he also had a salon, workshop and residence in Paris, first for a period in 1934 and then again between 1937 and 1939.4 During these years, he met and befriended a number of artists, including Salvador Dalí (1904–89), Christian Bérard (1902–49) and Cocteau. James and Cocteau began to work together in 1937 after James’s first show in Paris; Cocteau and Marais met the same year. James was later to establish a competition at the Paris branch of Parsons School of Design for the ‘best adaptation of Cocteau’s motifs for printed silks’.5 The short sleeves and bodice of the dress are cut as one piece, spiralling around the arms and opening into draped pleats over the chest. The hips are defined by seams and darts, while the main part of the skirt clings close to the body, apart from a slight flare at the hem. Charles James himself gave this dress to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974, and it remains uncertain if it was ever purchased or worn. To further complicate the provenance of this dress, a designer label is sewn inside it: ‘Charles James / 15 Bruton St. W1’. According to the available records, James had already moved from this location by November 1936. As Cocteau and Marais only met the following year, it appears that James was still using old labels for garments created in 1938 and later.

66


‘Tree’ evening dress Silk taffeta. No label. New York, 1957 Chicago History Museum: CC1973.59 Given by Mrs William Cameron

Sumptuous folds of pink silk taffeta run the entire length of this evening gown, originally designed in 1954. Hand-stitching carefully secures each fold at a strategic angle, so as to emphasize the idealized silhouette and also blur the lines of the individual pattern pieces. The inner bodice of the ‘Tree’ dress is made from 14 individual pieces, cut in a similar way to many of James’s structured bodices of the 1940s and ’50s. Seven vertical strips of metal coil boning are bent to support the silhouette of the dress and sewn into casings on or very near to the vertical seams of the garment’s inner layer. A layer of cotton broadcloth is then used as a surface on to which are secured the exterior decorative folds, along with an additional layer of cotton flannel to ensure that the vertical bones are not visible through the exterior layer. Finally, the bust cups and the straps are supported by an additional layer of horsehair and linen canvas, sewn in such a way as to retain the shape of the wearer’s body even when the garment is not being worn. The skirt is more elaborate and consists of several main layers. The innermost is rather simple in shape, following the pattern of a basic knee-length skirt, with a flounce of silk taffeta joined to the hem. This layer forms a barrier between the wearer and the outer skirt layers, which are made of sturdier fabrics, and also acts as a foundation on to which are sewn, at the centre back, two arcs or ‘wings’ of stiff fabric. Created by quilting together layers of nylon braid, nylon crinoline, horsehair and linen canvas, and cotton calico, these arcs create a bustle-like support for the skirt. The next layer, a flared petticoat, is sewn over the arcs and made of the same sturdy materials, though not quilted together in this case. Extending from the

56


‘Tree’ evening dress Silk taffeta. No label. New York, 1957 Chicago History Museum: CC1973.59 Given by Mrs William Cameron

Sumptuous folds of pink silk taffeta run the entire length of this evening gown, originally designed in 1954. Hand-stitching carefully secures each fold at a strategic angle, so as to emphasize the idealized silhouette and also blur the lines of the individual pattern pieces. The inner bodice of the ‘Tree’ dress is made from 14 individual pieces, cut in a similar way to many of James’s structured bodices of the 1940s and ’50s. Seven vertical strips of metal coil boning are bent to support the silhouette of the dress and sewn into casings on or very near to the vertical seams of the garment’s inner layer. A layer of cotton broadcloth is then used as a surface on to which are secured the exterior decorative folds, along with an additional layer of cotton flannel to ensure that the vertical bones are not visible through the exterior layer. Finally, the bust cups and the straps are supported by an additional layer of horsehair and linen canvas, sewn in such a way as to retain the shape of the wearer’s body even when the garment is not being worn. The skirt is more elaborate and consists of several main layers. The innermost is rather simple in shape, following the pattern of a basic knee-length skirt, with a flounce of silk taffeta joined to the hem. This layer forms a barrier between the wearer and the outer skirt layers, which are made of sturdier fabrics, and also acts as a foundation on to which are sewn, at the centre back, two arcs or ‘wings’ of stiff fabric. Created by quilting together layers of nylon braid, nylon crinoline, horsehair and linen canvas, and cotton calico, these arcs create a bustle-like support for the skirt. The next layer, a flared petticoat, is sewn over the arcs and made of the same sturdy materials, though not quilted together in this case. Extending from the

56


Evening dress Silk crêpe. Label: ‘Charles James / 15 Bruton St. W1.’ London or Paris, 1939 (fabric designed 1938) V&A: T.274–1974 Given by Charles James

Few of Charles James’s designs feature printed textiles. For this garment, however, James used a fabric designed by artist Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) that features the artist’s own profile and that of his lover and muse, actor Jean Marais (1913–98). Set against a bright green background, stars and the handwritten name ‘Jean’ circle the couple’s faces; the design is a celebration of the relationship between the two men. While James spent most of the 1930s in London, he also had a salon, workshop and residence in Paris, first for a period in 1934 and then again between 1937 and 1939.4 During these years, he met and befriended a number of artists, including Salvador Dalí (1904–89), Christian Bérard (1902–49) and Cocteau. James and Cocteau began to work together in 1937 after James’s first show in Paris; Cocteau and Marais met the same year. James was later to establish a competition at the Paris branch of Parsons School of Design for the ‘best adaptation of Cocteau’s motifs for printed silks’.5 The short sleeves and bodice of the dress are cut as one piece, spiralling around the arms and opening into draped pleats over the chest. The hips are defined by seams and darts, while the main part of the skirt clings close to the body, apart from a slight flare at the hem. Charles James himself gave this dress to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974, and it remains uncertain if it was ever purchased or worn. To further complicate the provenance of this dress, a designer label is sewn inside it: ‘Charles James / 15 Bruton St. W1’. According to the available records, James had already moved from this location by November 1936. As Cocteau and Marais only met the following year, it appears that James was still using old labels for garments created in 1938 and later.

66


Front view

68

Back view


Front view

68

Back view


Front view The cape is ‘opened up’ to show all ribbon panels and seam placement.

78


Front view The cape is ‘opened up’ to show all ribbon panels and seam placement.

78

Charles James: Designer in Detail  

Charles Wilson Brega James (1906–78) was one of the most celebrated and sought-after couturiers of his day, and won ecstatic praise for his...

Charles James: Designer in Detail  

Charles Wilson Brega James (1906–78) was one of the most celebrated and sought-after couturiers of his day, and won ecstatic praise for his...

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