The True Original

Charles James was sui generis. The Costume Institute's Harold Koda explains why

Published April 30, 2014
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When Harold Koda, curator-in-charge of The Costume Institute, first saw Charles James' work, he didn't get it. But while researching Charles James: Beyond Fashion alongside consulting curator Jan Glier Reeder, Koda discovered why he had such difficulty wrapping his head around James' couture. "He was not a fashion designer," Koda said. "He was working as an artist in a medium that was fashion." James existed outside the fashion system that fed his contemporaries—and he refused to conform, which was both his greatest strength and most tragic flaw. "He was much more interested in ideas than production. And he would never cannibalize one of his designs just so he could make and sell ten. He didn't have the temperament to do that." Hence, his financial failure.

In the end, though, it's James' big dreams; obsessive, off-the-wall techniques; and rejection of the norm that make him a designer worth remembering. Here, Koda speaks to about the couturier's embrace of eroticism, his artistic approach, and what Koda hopes visitors take away from the Met's forthcoming exhibition.

How did you enjoy curating this exhibition?

It's been fun to work on. Some costume historians are really enthralled by James' work. I've been familiar with it since I worked at FIT—there were some really extraordinary samples of it there. But his approach was not something I really understood. He was a designer who created his own techniques, so his work didn't conform to what Vionnet did or what Balenciaga was doing or even what more traditional designers like Dior were doing. He just didn't conform.

Is that because he was self-taught?

Yes, he basically was. It's clear that he had some exposure to the techniques of haute couture, but the way he thinks about the construction of a dress is so out there that I never really got it. But here, I was able to look at someone whom I didn't quite understand and realize that his contribution was an important one. I got to know the meat and potatoes of the work—well, it's not really like meat and potatoes. It's more like caviar and champagne, or foie gras. Lots of foie gras and white truffle shavings. He was such a different kind of designer than I had anticipated from my experience at FIT. He was just so original.

But despite that originality, we don't hear a lot about Charles James. Do you feel fashion history forgot him?

It's true that, at the end of his life, if you went down to the street and said, "Charles James lives there," nobody would care. But think about Anna Piaggi—she had Antonio [Lopez] do all these drawings of his work immediately after he died. The people who were really savvy never forgot him. It's just that he was never a household name, even when he was at his peak. He was always known as being at the cutting edge of the design world. I think what will happen with this exhibition is that fashionable people will come in, and they'll be inspired by the colors and the shapes, but they will [translate] them in a more traditional way so that [the clothes] can be easily manufactured. But I think the people who will come away with even more inspiration will be industrial designers, graphic designers, and architects, because you will see such interesting ways of thinking.

Why didn't he ever become a household name like his contemporaries Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga?

Partially because he was not widely broadcast as a commercial designer. You know, he was going to title his autobiography Beyond Fashion, which is the name of our show, and I think that part of it was that he felt as though he was above fashion. He certainly felt himself separate from the fashion system. But he also fully acknowledged that his métier, his medium, was clothing. He was never embarrassed by that as an art form. He saw himself as equal to painters or sculptors. As far as being separate from fashion, he didn't lack for self-confidence or self-esteem. Rather, he thought he was better than a commercial designer and he never felt he had to compromise on that level. On the other hand, even in the truest sense, I don't think he was a fashion designer. I just don't think he was part of the system.

Well, he certainly wasn't producing in line with the system.

Elizabeth de Cuevas, a client who did the wonderful book in 1982 for the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum [The Genius of Charles James], estimated that he had maybe two hundred original designs. James himself claimed that he had one thousand distinctive designs, but we've looked at all his work and that seems like an exaggeration. Someone who is part of the fashion system easily does seventy-five different designs in a collection. And people like Saint Laurent did two hundred in a show. So automatically, James was different than other designers.

Would you liken him to Azzedine Alaïa in that sense?

You know, I think Alaïa is the perfect analogy—someone who is treating his work as a creative discipline who does not or cannot conform to the vagaries of the industry. They're doing their own things. Though Alaïa does many more designs than James did—he is much more productive. What James would do is he would revisit a design, so the design was never concluded. Even the Clover-Leaf dress, which he considered his masterwork, even that continued to change. He changed the surface in at least two quite distinctive ways. He was somebody who just was obsessive about a certain idea and he wouldn't let it go.

So many of the designers featured at the Met captured the zeitgeist of their time through their creations. Punk was a great example of that. Do you feel that Charles James follows suit?

Oh, definitely! We have one of his earliest surviving designs. It's a later permutation by a few years of the Taxi dress, a design he introduced in 1929. He was a great marketer because he would create these ideas that were lively and peculiar enough to attract your attention, and humorous enough that you would keep him in your mind. 1920s fashion was about things that went over your head, and the backs of the garments were similar to the fronts. From the beginning, James thought of the body in three dimensions and 360 degrees. So a pattern piece would spiral around the body [as it does in the Taxi dress], and there isn't a conventional side seam. Anyway, he called it the Taxi dress because you could take it off or put it on easily in a taxicab. It's a silly conceit, but it's one that catches the speed of modernity—a woman on the go. And if you consider the 1930s and the independent women who were celebrated in movies, his dress captured that zeitgeist.

James' gowns were incredible works of sculpture, but oftentimes they were huge and quite heavy. Was a woman's comfort something he was concerned with, or was it always about aesthetics?

It was both. He never designed a dress that was impossible to wear. But what he did violate was any sense of a woman thinking, This is flattering and this isn't flattering about my body. He felt like he had the eye to be able to tell whatever your shape was when you came through the door of his atelier, and he felt he knew what would make you look better than you did. So no matter the size of your wallet, you couldn't tell him, "I'll only wear this and I'll never wear that." That would never matter to him. You would just be out the door. You either dressed the way he thought you looked best—and that would be looking the most Jamesian—or not at all.

Photos: Tatijana Shoan / Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Getty Images (2)

I'm very curious about his relationship with women. He dedicated his entire life to making women look beautiful; he was openly gay from his teens; and then he marries one of his clients, Nancy Lee Gregory.

Most of his life he was gay. What we would say is that he was a practicing homosexual. But he fell in love with Nancy and he said, "What's so odd about that?" In contemporary culture we talk about bisexuality. I'm of a generation where if a man had sex once with another man, he was gay. Bisexuality was seen as indecision or not coming to full maturity. But homosexuality is very much on an elastic spectrum. I think that's what everybody—all the scientists—are finding out. Some people are more extreme on one end and can't negotiate their sexuality, and others are on a very elastic band. I assume that James was the latter. He has two really wonderful children, so, you know, it wasn't just a mariage blanc. He was so independent-minded that he didn't need marriage as a beard to gain us.

I think he had a really engaged relationship with women. He was not a misogynist. He wasn't upset or afraid or paranoid of female sexuality. In his designs, he emphasized these creases and forms that are very vulval and labial, and he loved that. He loved to express the anatomy of a woman in a poetic way. And men, he did his erotic drawings of men and women, though they tended to be more of men. Above all, he was a sensualist, and he loved the idea that the anatomy and procreative possibilities of dress could arouse desire through beauty.

James is often hailed as the great American couturier. However, he was born in London and spent quite a bit of time in Paris. Do you believe he was an inherently American designer?

No, I don't. And I think he saw himself beyond any kind of cultural definition, but he never gave up his British passport. What I do see in him is more a class and time issue—he was Edwardian. He had a pre-World War I privileged attitude. America used to be about the middle class, and that was not his sensibility at all—it was very aristocratic. But, you know, he was living in relative squalor at the end of his life compared with his beginnings, which were in complete privilege. And yet, he didn't change. All of the people who were around him said if he had money, he'd be having bottles of champagne and foie gras. I don't know if he had foie gras, but certainly caviar and smoked salmon. That's how he lived. He wasn't living like a poor person—not in his head.

Would James have been successful had his friend Cecil Beaton not supported his work?

Oh, yes, definitely. One of the things that we're finding in some of the letters is that after Beaton had done that anti-Semitic insertion in one of his drawings for Condé Nast, he was very much not the go-to person anymore. It's James who, because of his loyalty to his old friend, insisted and got Beaton American jobs, and Beaton ended up working again for Condé Nast.

Is James relevant to contemporary designers? Are they—or should they be—referencing and studying his work as they do, say, Dior's New Look, which James had a hand in inspiring?

I would say that so much of what he did has been absorbed into the fashion system that he repudiated. Think about Halston designing a collection for J.C. Penney. James did that [a licensing deal] back in the thirties. So Karl [Lagerfeld] doing H&M had its roots in this weird guy who was not following any rules. As far as his construction techniques, the only designer I've really seen who's done James' kind of construction was John Galliano. The way he worked with fabric strikes me as Jamesian. On the ready-to-wear level, you see it less, though we are at a moment—and this is purely coincidence—where you are seeing these arching shoulder forms, 1860s sleeves that James revived in the 1930s and forties. I see them everywhere. So there is a kind of James silhouette that seems to be emerging. But I doubt the more cutting-edge designers have seen James' work.

What do you want people to take away from Charles James: Beyond Fashion? And do you think it can pack the same punch as Punk?

We're not anticipating the same kind of turnout. It's going to be hard to get guys to come, so already you're cutting down your audience by half, right? But I think [viewers] are going to leave with the sense that making a dress can be art. If they can get beyond the fact that these are garments, anyone who has a sensitivity to what it takes to be a truly creative person, to create a truly original artwork, they will see that James' process is one that has every single requirement of the standard for something to be called art. In terms of the audience, I think it will be more self-selecting. I do think we'll get a younger audience that is curious because this is not a person that they know about, and we'll be able to introduce them to the work of somebody who is relatively forgotten. But if there is a side takeaway beyond the fact that he is an artist, I hope that people will realize that no matter what your medium is, if your commitment is to originality, it's important and it warrants scrutiny. That's really what James did. He gave up his own comfort, he gave up business partnerships, he gave up friendships, he gave up an easy life for the pursuit of what he thought was important: to create original work.

Photos: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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