I have never met any of the lucky women who owned a dress by Charles James. A college friend, though, had an aunt who wore a James to her engagement party, in the late nineteen-fifties. It must have been one of his last creations, since he went out of business in 1958. “Imagine that! A James in the family!” my friend said, as if she were speaking of a Vermeer. “I’ve always wondered what happened to it.”
I’ve always wondered what happened to James. His name draws a blank outside the fashion world, although Christian Dior called him “the greatest talent of my generation,” and Balenciaga, a miser with his enthusiasms, considered James “the only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art.” But by the time this compliment reached James’s ears he was living at the Chelsea Hotel, nearly destitute, and estranged from all but a few devotees. They were mostly members of a wild younger generation that included Halston, a former protégé, who briefly gave James a job and, in 1969, produced a retrospective of his work in an East Village night club. James turned on him, though, as he had on so many friends and benefactors. He was demanding at his best, and substance abuse heightened his volatility.
Like Proust, who gave his mother’s furniture to a brothel, James sometimes lent a couture outfit to a club kid. But he also liked to model the clothes himself; his physique was elfin. Diana Vreeland recalled meeting James in the late nineteen-twenties, when he was voguing on a beach in the Hamptons in women’s hats of his own creation and “beautiful robes.” He was about to make his début as one of those boy wonders who have played an outsize role in the history of fashion. And there always was something of the boy wonder about him: a puerile sense of entitlement that did him in, a prodigious imagination that never gave out, and a conviction that he was immortal. James died at seventy-two, and at the end of his life he was wizened and frail, but he still had the luxuriant dark hair of a matinée idol. His grudges were luxuriant, too. He had so much bitterness to discharge, so much glory to recall, and such philosophy to impart—a whole science of couture—that he talked through the night to whoever would listen.
James’s years of obscurity never shook his confidence that posterity would give him his due, and, sure enough, the largest James retrospective ever mounted, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion,” opens on May 8th at the newly refurbished Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show’s curators, Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder, and its conservators, Sarah Scaturro and Glenn Petersen, have, in effect, rescued, restored, and annotated a lost gospel. Reeder, a James expert, spent three years demystifying a biography that James embroidered. Her catalogue essay is the first reliable chronology of the life and the work, and James’s range will astonish anyone who knows him only through a few photographs by Cecil Beaton. One of those images—a classical frieze, in which eight swanlike beauties are posed in a grand salon—is on the cover of the catalogue. Each ball gown is a pearly cascade of satin or taffeta, undergirded by an armature of bone, padding, or tulle.
Beaton’s picture, however, plays to received ideas about James that Koda and Reeder otherwise take pains to dispel. The mature James lacks the irony of a postmodernist, yet his samplings from the past (bustles, panniers, and crinolines) have the same nerve. The young James was a leader of the avant-garde, whose ingenious tailoring—“off-grain” cuts, displaced seams, asymmetric draping that eliminated darts—is hard to read in a photograph. (Fashion history has a prejudice for the photogenic, and the tour de force of simplicity is often slighted.) James designed several outfits with an adjustable fit, so that two sizes accommodated most figures. The infinity scarf and the wrap dress were his inventions, as was the down jacket—a puffer for evening in ivory satin, which Dali admired as a “soft sculpture.” One of James’s novelties was a proto sports bra.
By rights, he should be remembered, like Chanel, as one of those revolutionary pragmatists who changed the way that women dress. But James was often too early to get credit for his breakthroughs. He introduced an A-line coat ten years before Yves Saint Laurent, who had just taken over at Dior, made headlines with the Trapeze dress. It must also be said that Chanel and Saint Laurent focussed on women’s lives, while James fixated zealously on their proportions. “The feminine figure,” he believed, is “intrinsically wrong,” i.e. not platonically ideal by his standards. His mission to correct its flaws with a nip and a tuck, an arcing seam, a buckram implant, a cushion of air between skin and cloth diminished his relevance, even as it enhanced his prestige as an anatomist. The young find remedial fashion intrinsically uncool.
Charlie James, as he was known to his familiars, was born on July 18, 1906, at Agincourt House, not far from the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, England, where his father, Ralph, was an Army staff officer. The baby was named in honor of his late maternal grandfather, Charles Wilson Brega, a Chicago shipping and real-estate magnate. His daughter Louise had met Ralph on a world cruise with her family; he was returning from a posting in China.
In 1910, the Jameses moved into a sixteen-room mansion in London. At five or six, Charles began composing for the piano. He was sent to boarding school at eight, and, at fourteen, enrolled at Harrow, though he left before graduation, with dismal grades. He later suggested that his departure was precipitated by a “minor escapade,” although Reeder found no official record of it. James was openly gay from his late teens, she notes, and for the friends in his clique—Beaton among them—beautiful manners and bad behavior were the essence of chic. They shared a taste for fancy dress, makeup, and dramatics. (In the nineteen-thirties, James became a successful costume designer.) Ralph James considered his son a disgrace, and the antipathy was mutual. James turned to fashion, he explained to a correspondent, “out of a compulsion to be involved in a business of which my father disapproved.”