I visited the newly opened Charles James exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Part of the experience, was the experience. I was there before the museum opened to be greeted by others more determined than myself to be head of the line - both lines. Charles James place in fashion history is unique, for better or worse, he did it his way. James was one of the rare ones of the Arts in that his skill and talents were so compelling that he would be the go-to designer other designers went for inspiration and ideas. Not the least adverse to some old fashion BS to throw into the mix, James had the kind of life and career that keeps you on the edge of your seat reading about... the highs are so high and the lows, well Google him for yourself.
The Charles James vision is clear and uncluttered unlike some others. Dior, god that he was, created design mania to stay front and center of the media. Controversy sells and sells very well. While sometimes the great French couture designers of the 1950s can get a little hazy as to who designed what, the work of Charles James looks like none other than his own. Some of his design is an acquired taste. James could get so esoteric, that there is nothing to compare it too. At his best, he is just simply the best of class. James viewed his design as art. His work, so magnificently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum could easily move some to tears. These gowns echo the intense frustration and pain those in the rare stratosphere of originality must sometimes travel through to get to the other side of a successful solution.
Life long friend and school mate Cecile Beaton captured James at his most iconic during the 1940s and 50s. The sumptuous baroque gowns, photographed and lit to perfection in equally important architectural settings, in unique color pallets that are just as masterful as the engineering of the gowns themselves. When he moved from Europe to New York, James hit his design and social stride. Fatefully turning a nurse and makeup shopgirl with the wrong accent into Elizabeth Arden, James was on his way. When Arden married a Russian prince, James designed her trousseau. This in turn helped him meet the creme de la creme, who would help subsidize his art. "Mathematical tailoring combined with the flow of drapery were his forte", noted Vogue in 1944. But finishing on time was a problem. He would borrow back a dress from one client, only to lend it to another. Worse still, he would lone it out for advertising. The Johnson & Johnson's famous "Modess Because" ad campaigns that ran from 1948 through the 1970s are full of gowns James borrowed back form clients only to appear in these high-fashion, couture-themed ads.
After I graduated from college, I lived in Philadelphia for a year. I occasionally visited a friend of mine from school who landed with the Metropolitan Opera. He lived at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. He would always fill me in on the scoop de jour - who's painting was in the lobby in lue of rent. Just as interesting were those on their way up or on their way down and left, or moved in the middle of the night. While I certainly recognized the reverence of his words when speaking of neighbor Mr. James, I alas, at the time, did not make a connection. However, I do remember the stories of the maids refusing to clean his room after just too much of too much. Endearing were his stories of late night chats with the charming and endlessly sharing Mr. James that would help shape his own design career with those nocturnal words of wisdom.