Hello, my lovely readers! How was your day? : ) Mine was alright.
The most talked about fashion event at the moment is, without doubt, the ‘Charles James: Beyond fashion’ gala benefit that was held on the 5th this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We’ve all seen the headlines. News about the gala is splashed all over fashion magazines, sns pages, blogs, etc. Whenever I open my laptop to casually surf the internet, I’m overwhelmed by thousands of fashion articles throwing today’s most popular celebrity names at my face, with netizens gushing over how Blake Lively, Emma Stone, or Madonna totally had perfectly coordinated outfits that accentuated their body types.
Since the whole fashion business is focused on the gala and the Charles James exhibition right now, I’m determined to write my own article about the Met event. One thing I realized while researching to write this article is that most of the articles online only gossip about what the celebrities are wearing on the red carpet rather than the actual exhibition itself, or what Charles James has done to innovate the fashion industry and deserve his own exhibition at THE Metropolitan Museum of Art. That’s why I decided to write about the great Charles James himself. I assume that not many of you have never even heard his name before (“Charles who?”). But he’s one of the most brilliant eccentrics that I’ve ever read about.
(One of James’s “Four Leaf Clover” dresses.)
Charles James(1906~1978), or, as Christian Dior labelled him, “the greatest talent of my generation”, was a perpetrator as well as a victim. While he incited chaos, he also had to run from it his entire life. James was born in England, and as a boy he showed musical talent but didn’t do well at school. His relationship with his father was significantly dysfunctional; both father and son shared a mutual animosity, which is apparently why he turned to the fashion industry, a business his father couldn’t stand.
James worked as a couturier in America, advertising through fashion press all over the world. He had a well-built reputation when he returned to London in 1929, and he later came to own exclusive salons in Paris, London, and New York. James’s success is said to have been built upon his spatial intelligence. He could imagine a design for a dress in several dimensions, and make it then and there. Some of his many unprecedented creations include the spiral cut and the taxi dress(a dress designed so that women could slip in and out of it easily in the backseat of a cab). Although James isn’t well-known among the general public(partly due to the fact that he didn’t establish a long-lasting brand label), fashion experts and insiders remember him for his elaborate ballgowns(which were tailored perfectly and made of exquisite fabrics), capes, and coats.
(“Tree” Dress. Charles James, 1955.)
An interesting achievement of James is that he set a precedent for including couture in the category of art. By getting the gowns he designed into the Brooklyn Museum, he started a pattern of regarding fashion and clothes as works of art, and this idea still lingers about the current fashion industry, where famous modern couture labels like Prada are collaborating with artists like Damien Hirst to merge fashion and art into one concept.
In 1950, James won the Coty Award, and three years later, in 1953, he won the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award. Although James had been openly gay since he was a teenager, in 1954, he married Nancy Lee Gregory(yes, a woman). He later claimed that his wife knew that he was homosexual. As successful as he once was, Charles James could not escape from an immense debt and habits such as substance abuse. He ended once cherished relationships and even fell as low as to returning his rewards and accusing the Brooklyn museum for stealing materials that he had left there himself for storage. He was constantly having to run and hide from the creditors he owed, living in a myriad of different hotels, one after another.
In later life, James eventually settled on teaching. He worked with students of the prestigious Pratt Institute and and the Art Students League. Now this is where the title of today’s exhibition, ‘Beyond Fashion’, comes in. James was writing a memoir which he intended to call ‘Beyond Fashion’, but unfortunately, he never got to finish it. Homer Layne, a Pratt student that used to be James’ chief assistant and took care of James’s works, gave James’s old pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year.
It was Friday, September 22, 1978 when Charles James passed away, leaving months of back rent and debt behind. The medical cause of his death was determined to be pneumonia and heart disease. To the medics that had come in an ambulance on the day of his death, Charles James said,
“It may not mean anything to you, but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world.”
Charles James was an innovator and a genius. Although I disapprove of some of his ideals(such as his view of femininity-he strongly opted for very traditional definitions and images of femininity only), I must admit that he has lived one of the most intriguing lives I’ve ever seen, and really just followed his gut throughout his turbulent adventure of life. He was raw, he was passionate, and he was real. He didn’t fake it, he really was himself the whole time, and I truly respect that in a person. Charles James’ life reminded me of how simultaneously hard and exciting a life in the fashion industry can be, and now I’m in love with fashion even more deeply.
Kudos to Charles James and the Met for coming this far. It’s a shame he isn’t here to see us celebrate his designs.
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