Friday, 10 May 2013

Dress of the week - Charles James, 1939

I have been looking at some lovely classic cars from the late 1930s lately, Like this one.

1938 Riley Big Four Redfern Saloon Tourer by Maltby

This car is English, and I can imagine driving in this car, going off to a cocktail party, perhaps wearing this silk cocktail dress designed by American- English designer Charles James in 1939.

Charles James, 1939

James was a master of the relationship between form, colour and texture, and he often heightened the drama of his evening wear by combining several like fabrics of different colours, as in the dress above, or different fabrics in like colours but with different light reflective qualities. Imagine the dress worn with these shoes....

Model 161 by Arpad, 1939

Charles James was born in Britain in 1906 and attended Harrow boys’ school.  His classmates included the future writer Evelyn Waugh, artist Sir Francis Rose, and photographer Cecil Beaton, who becomes a lifelong friend (later illustrating and photographing James’s work for Vogue). Young Charles was reportedly expelled in his third year for a “sexual escapade.”

Hoping to drill some discipline into James, his parents packed him off to Chicago, his mother's home town, to work in the architecture design department of a utilities company.   James began designing and selling patterned scarves from his desk, and was soon fired.  After a brief stint at the Herald Examiner newspaper he got the backing of some of his mother's friends and opened a hat shop in 1926, using the name of a school friend, 'Charles Boucherdon'. Two years later he moved to New York and opened another hat shop, and began designing dresses. 

Charles James, 1930s
In 1929 James moved back to England, and opened a salon in London under the name E. Haweis James (his father’s two middle names), but it soon closed due to bankruptcy - not unusual at that time.  He then began selling his original designs to top department stores and manufacturers in New York, London, and Paris, which—as was the practice—used them as prototypes for mass-produced copies. In 1933 he opened another London salon, and the following year he presented an invitation-only couture collection in the Wedgwood Room of Chicago department store Marshall Field’s. 

Charles James bias cut evening dress, 1934
In 1936 he established a salon under his own name, Charles James (London) Ltd. and in 1937 made his formal Paris haute couture debut with a collection that included pieces crafted from vintage silk grosgrain millinery ribbon, which attracted orders.   He also began designing fabrics for French ribbon-maker Colcombet,  and in June, Vogue featured his Sylphide, or Corselet, dress.

Charles James, Satin dress decorated with silk ribbon, 1937

Like Elsa Schiaparelli, James was a friend of the Surrealist painter Salvador DalĂ­ (1904-1989), and made use of Surrealist influences in his designs. He was also fascinated by the cut of historical dress and explored innovative new forms of garment construction, such as spiral draping.  James career peaked in the late 1940s, and he opened the Charles James, Inc. custom design business on East Fifty-seventh Street, New York. He focused on sportswear,but also became famous for his one off ball gown designs.  Personally draping and constructing the garments that bear his label, he was considered to be one of the only true coutures in America. He created dresses for America’s elite wives, like Mrs. Randolph Hearst, who would wait months for his creations. Among James’s most ardent (and patient) devotees were Babe Paley, Mona von Bismarck, the Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogerrs, and the burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, for whom he created elegant designs for her strip-tease. Fellow couturiers Elsa Schiaparelli (who had to pay) and Coco Chanel (who didn’t) also put in orders. This dress is very reminiscent of the 1939 dress above.

Charles James fitting a dress for Mrs. Randolph Hearst.
In 1944 James's collection designed for Elizabeth Arden debut, and Marlene Dietrich models a James for Arden dress for Vogue. Although the collection was successful, due to financial concerns and wartime fabric rationing, the collaboration did not continue.
Models in Charles James gowns by Cecil Beaton, 1948.

A perfectionist to the extreme, James was capable of spending thousands of dollars developing the ideal sleeve, or a staggering twelve years on a single frock. Such obsession ultimately prevented James from achieving the kind of success his genius deserved. Over the course of a 50-year career, he created just over a thousand garments, each one a true objet d’art.

Charles James and Model, 1950s
In 1954 James married his patron Nancy Lee Gregory, and following the birth of his son in 1956 he created a collection of infant and toddler wear using Charles, Jr., as his mannequin. Designs included special seaming and gusseting to allow for greater ease of movement, and Princess Grace of Monaco was one of his first buyers, snapping up a layette for first child Caroline. James's daughter Louise was born in 1957, but his marriage did not last. He died of pneumonia in 1978, at the Chelsea Hotel, alone and penniless.

Another sad end for another great artist. See more of his work here.

Deb xx

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