Posts Tagged ‘Charles James’


Eleanor Lambert, circa 1930s. Photo by Cecil Beaton.

In January 1943 … fifty-three editors from across the United States came to Fashion Week for the first time. The Collections were all to be shown in the glorious, million-square-foot neo-Rococo Plaza Hotel. which, standing at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan, dominates Grand Army Plaza and overlooks the tangle of Central Park. Here, in the hotel’s majestic, gilded ballrooms, the writers and editors were given a privileged look at the newest styles six months in advance of the upcoming season. 


The woman behind the very first Fashion Week in 1943 was Eleanor Lambert (1903-2003), a fashion publicist. Ms. Lambert was all about marketing American fashion and fashion designers. Not only did she come up with the idea of Fashion Week she also founded the International Best Dressed List and the Coty’s Fashion Award.

Up until Fashion Week, regional fashion journalists were limited in their reporting to what fashions were available in the local department stores and boutiques. Ms. Lambert offered journalists from across the country an opportunity to meet designers and see in person their latest designs during an extensive fashion show. What she had in mind was additional and broadened fashion coverage and of course increased sales for her clients.  It certainly was a game changer for fashion journalism.

This is one of many fashion tid-bits I found in the book –  Charles James Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art. By Michele Gerber Klein (Rizzoli). Ms. Lambert is one among many individuals (artists, socialites, designers) who circulated around and crossed paths with Charles James. Their stories make for an interesting and informative read.

Fashion Week is still with us. NYFW happens September 6-14, 2018.

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Austine Hearst models a Charles James coat for a 1954 Vogue fashion shoot. Photo from the book Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man. 

Sometimes in my family, they remade old clothes over and over. They would go up to the attic, choose an outmoded dress, and restyle it: take the buttons off one thing and put them on another. In the South in that period before and following the Civil War, when the attic began being filled, they saved everything, so that in my girlhood there were just endless resources: pieces of ribbon, bolts of lace, boxes of feathers, and pieces of fur, buttons, and buckles. Nothing was ever thrown away. 

Austine Hearst (1920-1991), American journalist, fashion model, and socialite.

Perhaps Ms. Hearst (nee McDonnell) was an original promoter of restyled/recycle fashion. She certainly was an admirer of and good friend to fashion designer Charles James, who created the famous Clover Leaf Ball Gown. Ms. Hearst modeled the gown in the 1954 March of Dimes Fashion Show.

The story goes that with the gown came a short evening jacket. Hours before the fashion show, Ms. Hearst had five dozen fresh gardenias attached all over the jacket. It was reported by Bill Cunningham that the scent was “intoxicating.” While walking the runway, she removed the jacket and flung it into the audience. Aaaa choo!

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faar-charles-james-02Cut in dressmaking is like grammar in a language.

– Charles James (1906-1978), fashion designer.

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Dede Wilsey, President Board of Trustees, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco says: “Every costume is a masterpiece.”

What Ms. Wilsey is referring to are the exquisite fashions chosen for the exhibit High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection now showing through July 19, 2015 at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums Legion of Honor.

With over 125 pieces of clothing tracing the history of women’s fashion, High Style offers a broad and balanced view of fashions from the early to mid-20th century. The pieces were selected from the vast collection at the Brooklyn Museum, which opened in 1903 and is the earliest, and considered the most distinguished, holder of fashion designs. In 2009 the Brooklyn Museum partnered with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Left: The Tweed Toga by Bonnie Cashin, 1943. Right: Ensemble by Claire McCardell, 1946 (first hoodie?).

Left: The Tweed Toga by Bonnie Cashin, 1943. Right: Ensemble by Claire McCardell, 1946 (first hoodie?).

Included in High Style are ball gowns and party dresses, sportswear and accessories. Examples are on view of French couture by Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, and Madeleine Vionnet as well as ready-to-wear by American designers Bonnie Cashin, Claire McCardell, and Gilbert Adrian among others. There are also several pieces by the one and only Elsa Schiaparelli, who was known for adding a dash of surrealism to her designs in the 1930s.

Jill D’Alessandro, curator of costume and textile arts, San Francisco Fine Arts Museums comments, “This is a unique opportunity to celebrate masterworks of both American designers and early 20th century couturiers.”

The Cloverleaf Dress designed in 1953 by Charles James for the daughter of a Texas oilman. It weighs 10 lbs., made of layers of different fabrics including satin and lace. Despite its rigid look, it's very pliable and is designed to have a lilt when dancing.

The Cloverleaf Dress designed in 1953 by Charles James. It weighs 10 lbs., made of layers of different fabrics including satin and lace. Despite its rigid look, it’s very pliable and is designed to have a lilt when dancing.

Of the six fashion-packed rooms, one is devoted to Charles James (1906-1978), a British born American designer who considered himself not a dressmaker but an artist. He was known for hobnobbing with American socialites and designing their unique ball gowns. Mr. James’ pieces, in contrast to the rest of the exhibit, stand erect like sculptures and independent of mannequins. (Allowing us to perhaps imagine ourselves donning such luxury.) For this effect, High Style uses specially built structures inside each gown.

What a treat to view such impressive craftsmanship and artistry, about as up close as most of us will ever get. High Style is a must-see for fashion students, designers, and anyone who is interested in clothing construction as well as fashion history. I suggest spending the day, take time and walk through at least twice to catch the details.

High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection – don’t miss it!





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