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The Met Ball's a'comin, and with it the opening of Charles James: Beyond Fashion (on view for the masses beginning May 8th at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art). As "Who is Charles James?" rings through fashion consciousness, media outlets are busily compiling guides to the designer—sorry, American couturier—underlining the radical jump from last year's punk exhibit. Punk, a concept simple enough for one Miley Cyrus to understand.
After the jump, the basics on why Charles James was important enough to snag his own Costume Institute exhibit—and why you've never heard of him.
Charles James invented stuff you wear all the time, like cupless bras and puffer coats. He was also one of the earliest designers to put zippers in evening gowns—game changer.
He was an architect with clothing, employing groundbreaking mathematical and scientific approaches to making pretty dresses. The end result? Clever, sexy, and comfortable innovations in the world of ball gowns. The famous Figure Eight dress has fabric running between the legs which is quite lovely for the wearer, and allows the dress itself to "dance" with every step. The "Taxi Dress," meanwhile, was designed to be so easy to slip off, you could do so in the back of a cab. Gypsey Rose Lee did a couture striptease in James-designed dresses, even.
Other designers thought he was the shit. Christian Dior called James "the greatest talent of my generation," while Cristobal Balenciaga named him "not only America's greatest couturier, but the world's best." Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel personally wore his clothes. If that's not endorsement...
He has all the trappings of a great fashion character. Openly gay in the 1920s—major—British-born James left his elite prep school before graduation partly due to an "alleged sexual escapade." His family sent him to Chicago for a job with Commonwealth Edison in 1924, but he left to start a hat shop, which his father disapproved of (he "borrowed" the name Boucheron from a classmate for his millinery line because Dad wouldn't let him use the family name on his shameful project—plus it sounded fancy and French). He designed in London and Paris before landing in New York City in 1940. He married friend and client Nancy Lee Gregory despite his sexual preference (they divorced in 1961 but remained friends). He managed to make and break friendships with other fabulous fashion characters like Diana Vreeland and Roy Halston. He tried to commit suicide a number of times. Financial troubles were a reoccurring theme for the designer—he spent the end of his life living and workout of the Hotel Chelsea.
So why hasn't his legacy lived on in mainstream fashion culture? Dr. Valerie Steele, fashion historian and the curator of the Museum at FIT, told Style.com that, simply, James "was nuts! He was a complete failure in economic terms. I mean, he made only a handful of dresses, and there are no perfumes associated with his name. The company's been extinct for years. People have really only heard of designers whose houses continue to exist." He wasn't just bad with money, he was even a little shady: A former assistant claims that James would "borrow" and resell the same coat to multiple clients, eventually selling it to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It's hard to be a G.
· Charles James: A to Z [Style.com]
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