I first wrote about the Charles James touch in Cissy's fashion in 2008. A new book, "Charles James Portrait of an Unreasonable Man," published March 20, 2018. While dolls and Charles James is a bit of a stretch, he was a significant American influence in women's fashion even before Christian 1947 Dior's "New Look." By the time Cissy is introduced in 1955, Charles James was at the pinnacle of his innovative design and unabashed self-destruction.
The book is a mesmerizing study of the life, visionary design, and career of Charles James. The twists and turns are unlike any other of the celebrity fashion designers coming mainly from the Paris runways. American Charles James was a product of European fashion houses. He returned to America during World War II. Many Parisian designers ousted by war, temporarialy located themselves in New York City. Charles James arrived with both his Paris credentials and superb American contacts to achieve a remarkable high fashion presence. Charles James was the only mid-century American to have these couture credentials. Talent, circumstances, and timing all smiled for James in the 1940s through the early 1960s.
While the book is full of jaw-dropping detail and backstories of the Charles James story, one of the earlier events is particularly interesting. When Charles James returned to New York City in 1939, fate would have it that Elizabeth Arden was looking to expand her cosmetic and beauty empire into fashion. This was partly due to the undisputed queen of American high style, Hattie Carnegie (Lucille Ball was an earlier in-house model,) announced she was getting into the cosmetics business.
Elizabeth Arden connected with Charles James, and in 1942 the magic began. Elizabeth Arden gave James a free rain to create his vision. His vision was costly and relentlessly demanding. The beginning of the end was the vast overruns on the new second floor showroom that was continually being reimagined. Magic turned into a war on a Machiavellian level. Charles would leave Arden in 1945 and go on his own. Charles James would open and even more costly showroom, create some of the most expensive and painstakingly crafted garments in the world and collect the most exclusive society clientele of the era.
Above and beyond the manic self-destruction, financial crises, betrayals, the vision and creative passion of Charles James are both thrilling and inspiring for aficionados of couture and of the glamor and drama of the fashion world. It does not get much more enthralling than the grand, but wretched story of Charles James skillfully presented by Michèle Gerber Klein.