Charles James: A lost genius who shall go to the ball

By Alexander Fury

Charles James 'Butterfly' gown, 1954. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Musuem of Art. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.
Charles James 'Butterfly' gown, 1954. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Musuem of Art. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.

Most people don't know who Charles James is. Hopefully, this years Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion will rectify that, somewhat.

The gala opening is tomorrow in New York. Men will don white tie and women lustrous evening gowns. James' work has too often been defined by a dress code: by Cecil Beaton's panorama of pellucid satin ball gowns, necks emerging swan-like from drapes of cloth. Many people know the Beaton picture, even if they're no idea who James is, or what he achieved. Part-Babe Paley, part-Disney Princess, the look will always have a certain saccharine currency.

My issue? James made some great ball gowns, sure - but he was a breathtakingly diverse designer, trying his hand at everything from sports gear to childrenswear. He offered garments ingeniously cut, so two sizes could accommodate any physique. He invented the puffer jacket - in 1937. Salvador Dali said it was the world's first soft sculpture.

Even the ball gowns don't get their fair dues. I hate comparisons between fashion and art, but James work came closer to art than perhaps anyone else's. Those gowns are actually sculpture - equal parts artistry and engineering. James constructed carapaces of cambric and interfacing and trussed them with pliant fabric, like an iron fist in a velvet glove. They're site-specific sculptures for the body.

I'm something of a fan - can you tell? That's why nothing - but, nothing - will stop me getting to the Met next week, and seeing the work of one of the greatest fashion designers who ever pricked pin into fabric.


• See our highlights from the Met Gala red carpet here!

- The Independent

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