‘The Cat and The Canary’ has been made five times for the cinema, but it began life as a stage play in 1922, written by John Willard. The play was transformed into its first movie version in 1927, produced by Universal Studios, however it is the 1939 Paramount re-make starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard which has become the most celebrated and loved version. The ‘Cat And The Canary’ is a classic “old dark house” movie whose comedy/horror script was the perfect vehicle for Bob Hope, who played the role of entertainer Wally Campbell. Although ‘The Cat And The Canary’ is not the first film to have been set in a haunted house, its screenplay did establish the template for the “old, dark house” genre; the term of which is actually derived from English director James (Frankenstein) Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’ from 1932 and refers to “films in which murders are committed by masked killers in old mansions.” The ‘supernatural’ events in the film are all explained at the film’s conclusion as the work of a psychotic criminal. Other films in this genre influenced by ‘The Cat And The Canary’ include ‘The Last Warning’, ‘House On Haunted Hill’ (1959), and the monster films of Abbot and Costello, along with those of Laurel and Hardy.
The film’s plot centres around the late Cyrus Norman – a millionaire who lived in the Louisiana bayous in a suitably creepy mansion with his mistress, Miss Lu. When the film begins, Norman has already been dead for ten years; now the executor of his estate – a Mr. Crosby – is seen making his way by boat with a native American guide, through the alligator-infested swamps to Norman’s mansion where he will read the late Norman’s will to his selected benificiaries at midnight. At the mansion Crosby is greeted by Miss Lu and her large black cat. Upon removing the will from a safe, he discovers that it has been tampered with. Norman’s relatives arrive, including Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard) Fred Blythe (John Beal) Charles Wilder (Douglass Montgomery) Cicily (Nydia Westman) Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson) and Wally Campbell (Bob Hope).The group convene to the parlour to hear the reading of the will, and as they do so, a gong sounds seven times. Ominously Miss Lu warns the assembled group that only seven of the eight people gathered there will survive the night! Further surprises are in store as Crosby reveals the contents of Norman’s will, which has been divided into two parts. The first part names Joyce Norman as the sole heiress of his entire estate, but with one major condition – concerned about an apparent streak of insanity which runs in his family’s blood, he has demanded that his heirs must remain sane for the next thirty days. Should Joyce loose her sanity within that time, then the heir will be determined from the second part of the will. Of course, this immediately raises concerns for Joyce’s safety, as the will is the perfect incentive for other members of the Norman family to increase their chances of inheriting, either by murdering Joyce or deliberately trying to unhinge her pyschologically.
Once Crosby has finished reading the will, he informs the assembled beneficiaries that they must stay overnight and Miss Lu once again warns in a foreboding manner of spirits that wander loose in the house.At the same time, a security guard is found prowling the grounds outside with a rifle, searching for a murderer called “The Cat” who has escaped from the local lunatic asylum. Crosby takes Joyce into the library to warn her about something and whilst her back is turned on him, a hidden doorway suddenly opens in the wall behind him and he is grabbed and pulled inside by an unseen assailant. A shocked Joyce turns to see that Crosby has evidently vanished into thin air and calls for help; subsequently she is horrified to discover that only Wally believes her story. Amidst a highly-charged atmosphere, (in which suspicions and accusations abound) Miss Lu hands Joyce a letter from the late Norman. Upon opening it, she discovers clues to the location of a diamond necklace, which she and Wally eventually find hidden in the garden. Joyce retires for the night (with the necklace) to whatused to be Norman’s bedroom and hides it under her pillow for safe-keeping. As she sleeps, she is suddenly awakened by a terrifying clawed hand which appears from a panel in the wall behind her bed and takes the necklace. A hysterical Joyce screams for the others and upon investigation Wally finds a hidden door in the wall near Joyce’s bed which leads to a secret passageway. As he opens the door, much to their horror, the lifeless corpse of Crosby crashes to the ground.
Wally takes Joyce into the parlour and proceeds to chat with her in order to calm her nerves. He leaves to fetch some liquor, when he hears a noise in Norman’s room and goes to investigate, opening the hidden door in the wall and setting out to explore.At the same time, Joyce sees the door in the parlour as it opens and proceeds to enter Norman’s room where she hears Wally call to her through the passageway.She enters the passage to locate him, but as she does so, somebody shuts her in from behind; frightened and on edge, Joyce makes he way nervously along the dusty, eerie, shadow-filled tunnel. She passes a dark cranny where the security guard is hiding, waiting to catch the escaped psychopath. Not long after, ‘The Cat’ (who has been stalking Joyce) appears and the guard apprehends him, prying the necklace from his grasp and telling the madman that his days of murdering are over. Foolishly however, he turns his back on the lunatic to admire the necklace, who then proceeds to stab him in the back. Meanwhile, Joyce has made her way to the end of the tunnel and found steps with a trapdoor at the top which leads into the garden of the house. As she climbs the steps, she suddenly looks back and catches the horrifying site of the pursuing ‘Cat‘ – knife in hand. As their eyes lock, he makes a mad sprint for her. Joyce escapes through the hatch and into a nearby garden shed, but the ‘Cat’ breaks through the barricade and moves in for the kill. At this point a breathless Wally arrives and yells to the ‘Cat ‘ “Charlie – STOP!” (later we find out that Wally had uncovered the Cat’s true identity when he found the second part of Norman’s will in Charles’ coat). A maniacal Charles rips off his ‘Cat’ mask, pins Wally to the wall with his knife and attempts to strangle Joyce, but Miss Lu arrives in the proverbial nick-of-time and shoots him with a rifle. The next day Joyce and Wally explain everything to the assembled press and at the same time un-officially announce their engagement.
Paramount released “The Cat And The Canary” in November 1939; it is one of the lesser-remembered gems from possibly the biggest year in movie history, but considering its competition at the time came from the legendary ‘Gone With The Wind”, “The Wizard Of Oz” and “Wuthering Heights”, this is hardly surprising! Bob Hope had been under contract to Paramount for a couple of years before he made “The Cat and The Canary”, but at that point still hadn’t made a big impact, or found his niche on-screen. He was, however, a huge star on radio at the time and Paramount obviously wanted to take advantage of his popularity. With the character of Wally Campbell – a bumbling, charming comic with a hilariously funny, cowardly streak, they hit the jackpot. This type of character became Hope’s signature role for the rest of his movie career and was probably exemplified best in his “Road” pictures with fellow Paramount players Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. The extremely lovely Paulette Goddard was fresh from her role in MGMs “The Women” and was under personal contract to David O. Selznick – producer of “Gone With The Wind”. Paulette herself had tested for the role of Scarlett O’ Hara, but had been turned down in favour of Vivien Leigh; Selznick had subsequently sold her contract to Paramount, who offered the comedy actress a seven-year option.” The Cat And The Canary” became Goddard’s first film under this new contract and proved to be a watershed in her career.Paulette was married to comedy legend Charlie Chaplin at this time, who had co-incidentally been the childhood idol of Bob Hope! During the shooting of the movie, Bob was introduced to Chaplin at the Santa Anita racetrack.An awe-struck Hope told Chaplin how much he had enjoyed “Modern Times” as well as working with Paulette, Chaplin returned the compliment by informing Hope: “I’ve been watching the rushes of ‘The Cat And The Canary’ every night. I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I have ever seen.”
Chaplin was right, Hope’s gags and one-liners set him apart from the competition. In ‘The Cat And The Canary’ he finally identified his niche in Hollywood and cinema-goers loved his new-found personna.As ‘Wally’, he balanced out the character’s brashness with self-deprecation, combined with the comedic timing of a seasoned pro and the helplessness/vulnerability of a young boy. His character works keenly within the story, protecting heiress Paulette Goddard from real and supernatural threats, but he also works outside of the narrative, mocking the dusty conventions of the plot and his own exaggerated cowardice.For example, in a scene where fellow potential heir Cicily asks Hope: “Don’t big, empty houses scare you?” he replies: “Not me, I used to be in Vaudeville!”. The Cat And The Canary was a smash-hit at the box office and in fact was so popular that Paramount rushed its follow-up ‘The Ghost-Breakers’ into production, which re-teamed Hope with Paulette Goddard. This movie too, met with great success. The character-type which Bob Hope created for ‘Cat’ subsequently became so pervasive in American comedy (as developed by performers from Woody Allen to Steve Carell) that it is easy to forget today just how original his concept/portrayal of Wally was/is. In any event, in 1939 ‘The Cat and The Canary’ and ‘Wally Campbell’ immediately established Bob Hope as a top box-office and comedic attraction, a position which he held right throughout the 1940s until the arrival of Martin and Lewis, with their newer, more anarchic line of comedy.
BOB HOPE: WALLY CAMPBELL – A wisecracking actor who knew Joyce in high School & whom Fred calls “The original flutterbrain”
PAULETTE GODDARD: JOYCE NORMAN – A sketch artist, the last living family member carrying the “Norman” name
JOHN BEAL: FRED BLYTHE – A sullen man who is romantically interested in Joyce
DOUGLASS MONTGOMERY: CHARLIE RYDER – A charming, attractive man who wishes to resume a previous relationship with Joyce
GAIL SONDERGAARD: MISS LU – An attractive but spooky Creole
woman who was Norman’s mistress and housekeeper.
ELIZABETH PATTERSON: AUNT SUSAN – An older woman who was once close to Norman
NYDIA WESTMAN: CICILY- an excitable (neurotic!) woman who reveres Wally
GEORGE ZUCCO: MR. CROSBY – a lawyer, executor of Norman’s estate
JOHN WRAY: HENDRICKS – Guard from the local insane asylum, searching for “The Cat”
GEORGE REGAS: Indian Guide
CHIEF THUNDERCLOUD: Indian Guide
MILT KIBBEE: Photographer
FRANK MELTON: Reporter
CHARLES LANE: Reporter
Miss Lu: There are spirits all around you.
Wally Campbell: Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I need it badly!
- Miss Lu is the character that was named Mammy Plessant in the original movie and Broadways versions of “The Cat And The Canary”.
- In the original Broadway play and movie, the dead man was named Cyrus West. In this version, the dead man is named Cyrus Norman, possibly because the actress Mae West was still making films at this time.
- Elizabeth Patterson played the role of Susan in both this and the first sound version of the story, The Cat Creeps (1930).
‘THE CAT & THE CANARY’ ARTICLE TEXT ©copyright Gary Alston 2013.
House Of Retro/Gary Alston makes no claim to the ownership of the images appearing on this page.
PHOTOGRAPH ©copyright THE CONDÉ NAST PUBLICATIONS INC.
One of the most influential Couturier’s of the 20th century was Charles James, a man credited with being “America’s first Couturier”. In fact he was British, the quintessential Englishman in New York. Although feted and hugely admired within the fashion world itself, his name is largely unknown to the general public. However, his impact on the world of Haute Couture, especially in the period of the 1940’s and 50’s, cannot be underestimated. His revolutionary designs graced the pages of countless style periodicals of the day, including “VOGUE”, “HARPER’S BAZAAR” and “TOWN & COUNTRY”.Indeed, the 1940’s and ’50’s was the era that produced his most famous work, and earnt him the admiration of his peers and clients alike.In keeping with the tradition of the Couture, he was a dressmaker of consummate skill and expertise; never more evident than in his dramatic ball gowns with their sculpted and fitted bodices, voluminous skirts, and intricate draping. The great Spanish born couturier Balenciaga, a master of form himself, bestowed upon James the following accolade: “Charles James is not only the most eminent American couturier, but also the best, and the only one who has raised Haute Couture from applied art form to pure art form”. Praise indeed.His equally stellar clientele reads like a roll call of the biggest patrons of twentieth century Haute Couture: Millicent Rogers, Coco Chanel, Diana Vreeland, Babe Paley, Marella Agnelli, Mona Von Bismarck, Gypsy Rose-Lee, Mable Dodge Luhan, Mrs. Wanamaker, and the DeMenils.
In writing this account of Charles James and his life, I was honoured and privileged to have been granted an interview with his ex wife Nancy James. Miss Nancy Lee Gregory, daughter of Mrs. Masten Brown and Riddelle Gregory of Kansas City, married Charles James on July 8th, 1954 in New York City. Nancy had been introduced to Charles by her first husband, Keith Cuerden (who also happened to be British), at the Sherry Netherland hotel. It has been noted that Charles James was a man who was psychologically flawed; his obsessive quest for perfection alienated many of his clients, who would sometimes have to wait for months in order to receive their orders.Nancy James says: “It is hard to say about his character. He had very polished manners, and speech.He said I was the only person who had ever told him he was shy. Although he could be volatile, I did not see that side of him, as it only occurred in the workroom. I wouldn’t say that he was a ‘manic perfectionist’. He was an artist, and artists find it hard to completely realise their vision. Charles was perhaps the first person to speak of fashion as art.”
Charles James was born on the 18th of July in Sandhurst, England, the son of an English father – Col. Ralph Hawels James, and an American mother – Mrs. Louise Brega James, of Chicago. His early education was received at the Lake Placid Florida School. He subsequently attended one of Britain’s most prestigious boy’s public school’s – Harrow, where he was extremely fortunate to meet such luminaries as Evelyn Waugh, Francis Rose, and most notably, Cecil Beaton, who became a longstanding friend. James was expelled from Harrow under the dubious premise of committing a “sexual escapade”, and eventually moved to America in search of fame and fortune. Nancy James remarks: “He remained a true Englishman.He never became an American citizen. He lived in America on a permanent resident visa obtained through the influence of his Aunt Enders -because he gave employment to people without making money himself.He loved to read the Classics, which is different to the American approach. When he was working, I would serve tea at a certain time in the afternoon, with his favourite Lapsang Souchong tea from Twinings, and toast with ginger marmalade. He was so proud of his British nationality, that in his will he specified that the British Embassy should be notified of his death.” James briefly attended the University Of Bordeaux in France, before being sent to Chicago by his family to work for a utilities magnate in architectural design. He resigned almost immediately, as the work did not appeal to him, although it is interesting to note that the methods and concepts of architectural design would permeate his susbsequent endeavours in the couture. James’ initial foray into the world of fashion came via the art of millinery. In 1926, at the age of nineteen, he opened his first hat shop in Chicago under the name of “Charles Boucheron”. However, James’ sights and aspirations were set on something far grander, and in 1928 he moved to New York, where he began creating his first dress designs.
PHOTOGRAPH ELIOT ELISOFON: FASHION GUILD AWARD OCTOBER 1950 ©copyright LIFE magazine 1950.
PHOTOGRAPH ELIOT ELISOFON: FASHION GUILD AWARD OCTOBER 1950 ©copyright LIFE magazine 1950.
PHOTOGRAPH ELIOT ELISOFON: FASHION GUILD AWARD OCTOBER 1950 ©copyright LIFE magazine 1950.
From 1930 to 1940, James began to make his mark as a fashion designer of note. In this period, he divided his time between London, Paris, and New York, where he sold his designs to department stores, including the newly established Fortnum and Mason. In 1934 he received his first commission for theatrical costumes, and he created the legendary Gypsy Rose-Lee’s break-away striptease stage costumes. It was also during 1934 and 1935 that he worked under the patronage of Paul Poiret, and designed fabrics for French textile manufacturer Colcombet. His first Paris collection debuted in 1937, which resulted in his designs being bought by Harrods in London, and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. As a result of these successes, James made New York his permanent home in 1940. Between 1943 and 1945 he designed for the Elizabeth Arden fashion department, and when her new store opened in 1945 with a benefit for the Red Cross, 25 of Charles James’ creations were shown. In 1947 he made an all too brief but nonetheless triumphant return to Parisian Haute Couture. This was followed in 1948 with a retrospective exhibition entitled “Decade of Design”, held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, which highlighted dresses created for his greatest American patron, Millicent Rogers. Millicent Rogers was the Standard oil heiress who invented Haute Couture ‘Hippy Chic’.During her lifetime, she collected more than 600 couture gowns, which she bequeathed to the Brooklyn Museum Of Art. Nancy James: “Millicent Rogers inspired him more than anyone.He felt that she could help him to resolve a design when he wasn’t certain how to finish it. When I was married to Charles, I thought that Mrs. Ronald Tree was his most beautiful client, with an exciting and adventurous personality.” James was awarded a “Winnie” – the Coty American Fashion Critics Award – in 1950 for his “Magical use of colour and artistic mastery of drapery”. Nancy James says: “I think that he employed the most remarkable use of colour combinations of any designer, ever. There were no fashion designers that he looked up to. He stood alone. In Paris years ago, there was a book called ‘The Dictionaire Of Snobissme’.It said: At the top there is only Charles James. His is the pure genius. After him comes Balenciaga.”
Charles James posessed a great love for the grand and the magnificent. He expressed this passion through his formal eveningwear.In October 1946, ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ carried a feature on his work.They noted that even before the House Of Dior was founded, James was promoting “a renewed magnificence” in the world of the Couture. One of Cecil Beaton’s legendary photographs from the same year shows nine women resplendent in Charles James ball gowns, surrounded by a room displaying equally opulent 18th century architecture. The theme is mirrored in the gowns, with their beautiful icey and pastel hues. Combined with the asymmetrical necklines, strapless and contrast bodices, and deep décolletages, are the most luxurious and beautiful fabrics.The mood is undoubtedly one of overt luxury and splendour. Designer Marc Jacobs has commented that James “Understood human nature; how people want to adorn themselves, and be spectacular.” Nancy James mentioned the way that James produced his shows: “Charles did not make regular collections as they do in Paris. Perhaps this was for the best, as the unique results he obtained by fitting clients himself were not suited to large shows. He made one or two ranges for Samuel Winston, a coat collection for ‘Dressmaker Casuals’ (for which he won the Coty award), as well as baby wear, belt, and jewellery lines. He also produced maternity clothes for Lane Bryant, for which he was listed in ‘Who’s Who’. I always thought that he was a good businessman, but he never found anyone to capitalise him, as is done in Paris. Although he always worked from home, and had staff come over, as well as use the workroom, I never felt that I was involved with his work. In his own salon he had two special people who helped him – Miss Kate Peil, who was the head of his workroom, and James Somerville, who helped on the business side. They were both with him for many Years.”
The process of translating a Charles James ball gown from the sketch to three dimensional model was a highly complex task not designed for the faint hearted, and one which required the skill of many.For, whilst a design may appear delicate, romantic, or even whimsical on the outside, on the inside it was developed and built with an almost scientific precision, which included solid construction, and sound principles of engineering.James’ designs, perhaps more than any other Couturier, represented to perfection the techniques required and employed on the interior of a garment to produce a model not only of couture standard, but one which was assembled in the true SPIRIT of the Couture. Silhouettes had to be shaped and supported to provide the Couturier’s intended effect, and as a result, hours of painstaking work was involved. Nancy James has noted that : “Charles did all the fitting himself. He would sometimes make a sketch, but whilst translating that design into fabric, it could change. His tailored pieces and dresses contained great amounts of detail in their sculpting and shaping, but sadly are never mentioned as much as his ball gowns, probably because the gowns were much more spectacular.”
CECIL BEATON PHOTOGRAPH ©copyright 1936 THE CONDÉ NAST PUBLICATIONS INC.
CECIL BEATON PHOTOGRAPH ©copyright 1936 THE CONDÉ NAST PUBLICATIONS INC.
James cut his waists on the curve, and boasted that he used no bust darts. The way in which he achieved this was to cut a multitude of pattern pieces that converged at the bust, which in turn created the shape normally supplied by a perfectly fitting foundation garment. Nancy James was fortunate to wear some of her husband’s glorious designs. She says: “Wearing a Charles James gown made me feel special – the centre of attention. Before I married him, I owned several of his cocktail dresses, and a black silk faille coat that belted in back and flared out, in back.They came from the department store ‘Lord and Taylor’. I also had a black seal coat made (like the silk faille one) with a bronze silk lining.It was at this time that Charles made the ‘Pagoda’ suit for me. After our wedding, two suits were made for me, and several versions of the sheath dress. Charles always decided on the colours and fabrics! In addition, I wore coats and ball gowns from the collection, as well as a black velvet cocktail suit, and skirts from the salon.”
SOCIALITE & REKNOWNED BEAUTY/COUTURE PATRON: BABE PALEY
Nature provided a continuing source of inspiration in Charles James’ work. In the late 1940’s and 50’s, many of his designs were named after living things, including the Petal, Swan, Tulip, Butterfly, Four Leaf Clover, and Tree dresses.Although James was best known for his evening wear, he also created fabulous coats and capes, many inspired by North African capes and caftans. His late 1930s “Ribbon” evening cape is a petal shape with ribbons and wings, whilst the “Gothic” coat which he repeated often in the 1950s was an A line cone with a simulated empire waist, fashioned from satin.
NANCY JAMES TO GARY ALSTON:
“I thought the article was wonderful. Your tribute dress is superb!”
In 1954 Charles James married Nancy Lee Gregory. She had attended The Barstow School in Kansas City, and Bennett Junior college, Millbrook, New York. Later, she studied painting at the Art Students League.Nancy was given away by her brother, Mr. Riddelle Gregory, whilst Mr. Patrick O’ Higgins was best man. A reception was held at the Sherry Netherland. Charles James naturally made Nancy’s wedding gown: “My bridal gown was made in pale, blue-grey silk, and was ankle length. It was made very quickly! As a wedding present, Cecil Beaton, who had attended Harrow with Charles, photographed me wearing a floor length version of the ‘Swan’ dress at the salon on 57th street.”
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF NANCY JAMES
Nancy and Charles had two children; Charles Jnr. and Louise, (named after his Mother). In 1956 he designed his first childrenswear collection. Nancy recalls: “I remember that Charles made a baby cape which was later adapted for adults. Unfortunately my chidren did not wear his designs, as it was at this time his business was falling apart, and being taken over by the Internal Revenue service.”
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF NANCY JAMES
Increasingly, James concentrated more on designing for the mass market, a vehicle hardly suited to his romantic idealism.Sadly, this is confirmed by the fact that in 1958 he became bankrupt, after numerous business failures. In 1964 he moved into the Chelsea Hotel in New York. His marriage to Nancy had broken up in 1961, and he established a small studio at the Chelsea, but attracted very few clients. It seems that his work was not suited to the new climate of modernism taking place. The 1960’s came as something of a culture shock to him, and his later years were not easy. Nancy James remarked: “Charles, to the end of his life, had couture clients, in spite of the changes. As for ready to wear, he felt that he could utilise methods of sizing that would produce better fitting clothes in very cheap, mass produced lines. As you know Gary, by fitting, he could give a client a much better figure than they already had.”
An attempt at designing jewellery brought him little success, however at this time he did meet the famous illustrator Antonio Lopez, who over the following years was to draw the best of James’ designs. There were two major exhibitions of Charles James’ work. One was in 1975 – a solo exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracruse New York, the other in 1980 at the Brooklyn Museum – which was a large retrospective. James died of Pneumonia at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978.He is survived by Nancy, and their two children and grandchildren.Neither Charles Jnr, nor Louise went into the fashion business, but Louise did enter the world of show business.Nancy says: “My daughter Louise lives in California, and worked for almost two years in movies and television, including as a movie extra in ‘Pleasantville’. She is now working for a post production company that provides visual effects for feature films. Her daughter Rio James, is studying acting in school, and is also interested in film editing. My son Charles lives in Pennsylvania, and is a test engineer for computer chips. He volunteers three hours a week as a D.J. for radio station WDIY (an affiliate of National Public Radio) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is also on the board of directors there, and sometimes produces interviews at film festivals for them. He lives with the mixed-media artist Annie Giancarlo, and they have a daughter, Ann.”
It has been said that Charles James was a modernist, striving for integral form. His designs suggest otherwise; for he worshipped Second Empire magnificence, and loved the ostentatious grandeur it evoked. There can be no doubt that he considered his dresses to be works of art, as did his clientele. He worked in a very unique manner, ignoring fads, trends, and the seasons, to produce beautiful, precisely constructed designs in the most exquisite fabrics, and tailored to the most exacting of standards. In so doing, he created a signature style that elevated him to the ranks of the greatest Couturiers of the last century. Although he will forever be associated with his glorious , sculpted ball gowns, he is also remembered for his fur and embroidery trimmed capes and coats, his spiral zipped dresses (he was the first designer to emphasise the zipper as a design feature), and his fabulous white satin quilted jackets, one of which is on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England. Nancy James: “My favourite gown – though only seen in a photograph – is the ‘Rose’ dress, which is shown on page 52 of the book ‘The Genius Of Charles James’. It was commissioned by ‘Flair’ magazine for a special Rose edition.”
Charles James was more appreciated in the Art world than the fashion world. He was a deeply complex man; for whilst on the one hand he was preoccupied with art and the beautiful things in life, at the same time he harboured a temperement that was often cynical, caustic, and malicious.Regrettably, this mean spiritedness and agressive behaviour was even unleashed on friends and aficionados of his work. Nancy James agreed that he could be difficult, although “He wasn’t this way around me. He was inspired by his clients – by their looks, and their personality. Yes, he did agonise about his work. That’s why he would tear it apart and put it together again, so that it would look exactly as he had wanted it to. However, he was not a ‘soul in torment’. ” James was the inspiring force behind Halston (another fashion legend) but he terminated their relationship in a state of acrimony. He also offended some of his most loyal clients with insults and abuse. Personal behaviour traits aside, it is thankfully, Charles James’ work that he will most be remembered for. Dior called his designs “Poetry”, whilst Bill Cunningham in “Interview” magazine (July 1992) said: “He (James) presented women with a shape that was not their own. You went into Charles James deformed, and you came out a Venus de Milo. He was the equivalent of someone from the Renaissance, who made ceremonial armours”.
In 2001, New York City decided to pay hommage to its great American fashion designers, by creating the ‘Fashion Walk Of Fame’ – a series of bronze plaques along Seventh Avenue, mecca of the American fashion industry. It was entirely fitting that Charles James was one of those to be honoured.The James family were proudly in attendance at this prestigious event. Nancy James sums up her feelings about her ex husband, thus: “I remember him as a very intelligent and cultured man, with a wry sense of humour – someone who was capable of making kind gestures to people in trouble. His proudest achievement was the four leaf clover gown – which he referred to as his ‘thesis’. He always said that he learned more from his work people than anyone else. I would like the world to remember him as a great artist.” There is no doubt that Charles James has been granted that accolade. His legacy lives on in his beautiful creations, thankfully exhibited in several museums, both in Great Britain and America. One of Charles James eveningwear gowns , a black satin version from 1948, sold recently for $49,450.00.It was a world auction record, and an enduring testament to the man’s sheer genius.
‘CHARLES JAMES’ ARTICLE TEXT ©copyright Gary Alston 2013.
House Of Retro/Gary Alston makes no claim to the ownership of the images appearing on this page.
Haute Couture. The term is synonymous with glamour, luxury, and wealth. It captivates and enthrals many a fashion devoteé. It is the prestigious face of French creative fashion and innovative design.It translates into the less expensive but still costly designer label known as Prêt-à-Porter. To be called a Haute Couture house, a business must belong to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter. There are around eighteen members currently, including such legendary houses as Chanel, Dior, and Pierre Cardin.The salons generate more than $1 Billion in annual sales (but not from the garments – more on this later) and employ close to 5,000 people. Come with me now as I explore and explain the inner workings of the rarefied and inaccessible (to most) world that is Haute Couture…
To begin at the beginning, one would be wrong to assume that ‘Couture’ pertains merely to the execution of fine sewing.Whilst Couture IS perfection in sewing, it is only a small part of the sum. The truth is somewhat deeper, as in essence the Couture is about aesthetics; an ideal, a vision, an ART.It is the true expression of a designer, and creativity that is complex, with evidence of great effort.It is about detail, finishing, and who wears it.Couture possesses the ability to evolve whilst remaining permanent.It sets the standard by which others will be judged, and holds historical importance. A rarefied and glamorous aura surrounds it.Couture holds all the mystique of Royalty, and is equally revered. In its basic form, ‘Couture’ means to sew – the literal translation of ‘Haute Couture’ meaning ‘high sewing’.A fitting description of a Couturier would be an ‘artist of the cloth’. It is also important to note the distinction in terms between the genders. ‘Couturier’ describes the male version, ‘Couturiere’ applys to the female of the species.For those who are fortunate enough to work in this unique arena, it has become a way of life, a reason for being, even.
PASSION.Another important word.It is the motivational force behind any successful artist.The road to becoming a Couturier demands nothing less. Of all the true greats to have emerged over the last one hundred years from the Couture, only a few dozen have written fashion history.They alone were able to take an inspiration and transform it into a groundbreaking, pioneering garment.Charles Worth holds the distinguished title of ‘Father of the Couture’.He founded his house in 1858 in the Rue de la Paix.French Haute Couture made its debut at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, where Worth and Doucet showed their sublimely beautiful creations to an incredulous international audience.A subsequent newspaper review proved to be highly prophetic: “For all those who offer sacrifice at the altars of elegance, brilliance, splendour, and beauty, Paris was, is, and always will be, the only truly blessed place of pilgrimage”.And so it is today.For whilst fashion and the Couture have become a global affair, it is Paris that retains its cachet as the epicentre of high fashion.
Just as Paris gave birth to the Couture, it was also there that a governing body was formed which in turn developed specific definitions and standards that were and are, rigourously adhered to if one is to become a member of the Parisian Haute Couture elite.It is worthwhile to note here the differences between a Couturier, a Createur, and a Commercial designer for Prêt-à-Porter. The designer of Prêt-à-Porter (or a ready to wear designer) is a concept that evolved in France in the 1960s.These designers must possess several skills, combining creativity with business sense, and a knowledge of marketing.Apart from designing the collection, they supervise its production and post analyse its performance in the market place.They also need to be aware of current trends, and sensitive to what is going on around them.In short, they design for a mass market. A ‘Createur’ on the other hand, (not to be confused with a ‘Couturier’), is actually a designer whose status is halfway between that of Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Porter. Thirty years ago, this term was used in Paris to describe a fashion designer.In 1973, the Fondation Francaise de la Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter recognised the existence of Createurs and accepted them into the foundation.As a Createur, the individual can label their designs with their own name, and as a result, are able to show their creations without having achieved the status of Couturier.
As you can see, a definite hierarchy exists within the French fashion world.At the top of the tree is the Couture, or to be more specific, ‘Grand Couturier’.In order to achieve the status of ‘Grand Couturier’ in Paris, one must meet the criteria set down by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter.These requirements state that as a Grand Couturier you must employ at least 20 people in your own atelier, show a collection of at least 75 designs using three live models in Paris twice a year, and in addition, you must present the collection 45 times a year to clients.Today, these stringent rules have been relaxed somewhat, so that the 75 designs that were formerly called for have been reduced to 50 ‘compulsory creations’.This opened up the doors at the end of the 1990’s for designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Josephus Melchior Thimister (who sometimes have fewer than half the number of outfits of many colleagues) to show their Haute Couture lines.
With such exacting standards, it is not surprising to learn that most Couturiers come to the art with years of previous training under the tutelage of more experienced designers.Within the environment of the Couture, designers feel inclined to ‘create’ rather than ‘produce’.Therefore, some liken the atelier to a ‘Laboratory’ – a place where designs and techniques are invented and tested – a place where creative solutions to problems are achieved. Indeed, the white surgeon-like coats worn by Couturiers such as Dior and Givenchy gave credence to this concept, and the continued wearing of this ‘uniform’ has become an in-house tradition for many a Couture salon’s staff. Because the specialist techniques required by the Couture are so diverse, and the standard dauntingly high – the house employs a large team of talented artisans. They will help the Couturier(e) to realise his/her dreams.At the head of operations is the Couturier(e) himself/herself, followed by a workshop manager and a deputy, pattern cutters, seamstresses, tailors and hand finishers, each an expert in their particular area of sewing : beading, tailoring, millinery, working on chiffon, draping or sculpting Gazar.In addition, the team will include a Creative Director of Haute Couture, an Artistic Director and an assistant.Of all the people that make up this talented roster, the most important position is held by the Premiere d’Atelier.As the title suggests, she is the head of the studio, the designer’s right hand, and more importantly, the link between him and his workrooms.It is her job to interpret and in turn communicate the ideas that her master has conceived to her colleagues in the studio.
There are few designers such as Pierre Cardin who can draw, cut and sew.This responsibilty is delegated to the Premiere d’Atelier.She will take the designer’s original sketch, and translate it into a working design drawing.From this, a sample toile will be cut, then fitted and pinned on the stand.The sample toile is a prototype of the design which can be manipulated, marked and adjusted to fit a particular individual’s measurements until the Couturier and his staff are satisfied. The final toile of a particular model is an accurate interpretation right down to the button placement or hemline. It will be created from either muslin (which drapes well for flowing designs) or linen canvas or calico for more structured styles, such as a tailored garment. After the toile has been altered, a basic pattern will be cut, and then another toile made.The Premiere d’Atelier must have a designer’s eye and a technician’s skill, for she will often be the person responsible for the actual fabrics, buttons and other accessories used in a collection.It goes without saying that she must be at one with her master or mistress on an aesthetic and creative level in order to produce collections that will strongly evoke the look of the Couture house they represent.Christian Dior’s Premier d’Atelier was Marguerite Carre, whom he called ‘Dame Couture’.Dior himself never touched a pinned gown, but his discerning eye never missed a detail during a fitting.There were other legendary Couturiers and Couturieres who practiced the art of ‘Draping’, as opposed to flat pattern cutting.These included such luminaries as Madeleine Vionnet- doyenne of the bias cut, Coco Chanel, Jacques Fath and Madame Gres.They did not produce a design in sketch form.Instead, their modus operandi was to create a design on the human figure or dressmaker’s stand.
The dressmaker’s stand has remained consistent over the last century, allowing of course for changing ideals of beauty, and the fact that women’s body shapes have altered overtime.It is incredible to recall that in Dior’s day, a woman’s waist SHRANK from 23″ to 21″! Regular clients of the Couture enjoy the special privilege of a dressmaker’s stand made to replicate their own dimensions, along with a filed record of their personal measurements.This saves the need for constant personal appearances at fittings.It is interesting to note that the number of Couture clients at the beginning of this century has shrunk to an almost infinitesimal level. During fashion’s ‘Golden Age’, after World War II, there was a worldwide clientele of around 20,000; socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, Mona Von Bismarck and Gloria Guiness would order whole collections at a time. Today that figure has shrunk to around 3,000.Of these, 60% are American, and only 200 are regular customers. Often, Couture houses will loan clothes to movie stars or other public figures for publicity. In spite of its small clientele, Haute Couture still exerts a great influence over the world of fashion in general.The lifestyles of the women who shop the Couture today are different to those clients of the last century. Fashion itself is transitory by nature, yet Couture is still Couture.A profile of yesteryear’s client would read something like this: she was an older woman who had achieved an elevated position in life, she was established, and rich.She came from Europe.By contrast, today’s client is of any age, and she can come from anywhere on the globe.The Couture itself in the 21st century is an international affair.In its early days, a client would normally display their loyalty to one designer.Today, a client will shop with many different designers to achieve the look her lifestyle requires.By tradition, secrecy was the order of the day in all things Couture; today the doors have been opened somewhat and the spotlight allowed to shine in. As a result, the Couture has enjoyed mass coverage and attention from the media worldwide.
Let us picture for one moment the client who ‘shops the Couture’. As a regular patron, she knows the form.When she arrives in Paris she will be accompanied by maids, hairdressers and a secretary.She will book into a suite of rooms at either The Ritz, The Maurice, or The Bristol hotel. Whilst she is in the city, her entourage will attend to her social and well being.Her secretary has already arranged for her to view the current collections at one of her favourite Couture salons prior to arriving in Paris (This is essential, as very often garments from a collection will be out of the country, being presented elsewhere. If the client is of long-standing, or a serious purchaser, the Couture house will sometimes provide a video of their most recent collection in order for her to make her choice). Once she arrives at the salon, ‘Madame’ is looked after by a ‘Vendeuse’ – a very important saleswoman. It is her job to assist the client from the beginning of the Couture process through to the final fitting.If the client happens to be one of her own, she will earn a commission on the garments ordered.Under the Vendeuse’s care, the client will be given a level of attention and personal service which are second to none.The Vendeuse will smooth out any difficulties (such as another client wanting the same design and colour etc) whilst holding discussions between the stockroom, embroiderers, furriers and client. Madame makes her selection, whilst discussing such aspects as colour and accessories, and the occasion to which an outfit will be worn.Her own personal mannequin mimicking her body shape will be in the atelier workroom.On this, the skilled artisans will make a toile that is sewn, shaped, tailored and molded to resemble the finished garment -the difference being it is created in muslin, as opposed to silk.Madame spots an exquisite strapless ballgown.With her choice duly noted, her personal dress mannequin will be supressed in order to reflect her body in that specific design; such is the level of attention to detail in Haute Couture. Madame’s order will naturally be made to her own individual requirements.
At the initial fitting (attended by the Vendeuse, the fitter and the seamstress) adjustments will be made to the sample toile. Each aspect of the toile will be scrutinised, which may take a few moments, or a few hours! The line, drape, proportion, fit, flare, hang of the sleeve, will all be assessed.With adjustments made, a well rehearsed process is initiated by the talented team of craftspeople who make up the studio workrooms. The toile will be laid mis à plat. This means that it is laid flat on a table, taken to pieces, adjusted, and put together again, ready for the next fitting.Once the toile is perfected, the garment is sewn in the fashion fabric, and may require three additional fittings, sometimes more.By this stage, if the garment in question is to be beaded, it will go to the legendary Parisian beading house of ‘Lesage’. Whilst the staff of the Couture workroom toil away to weave their customary magic, Madame avails herself of the attractions of Paris, including the museums, shops and restaurants.She pays a visit to her favourite shoemaker, whose skill is the equal of any Couturier.Using the finest leather, dyed to match her gown, the shoemaker will create the ultimate statement in footwear, lined in satin and piped in gold.At Hermes she collects a piece of luggage that has been made and dyed to her specifications to match her other trunks and suitcases.
Madame returns to the Couture house for her final fitting.By now the garment has blossomed into a beautiful creation of silk taffeta. Once the garment has been finished and before it is released to the client, the Vendeuse will inspect it, for her exacting standards will have to be met before the garment is approved as Couture. Madame visits the salon for the last time to try on her completed gown.She is thrilled to find that it fits like a glove and accentuates her good figure points whilst disguising her figure flaws. As she twirls in front of a magnificent walled mirror, she feels like a princess who is walking on air. She has paid not merely for a garment, but for the art and skill of many – and for the unique experience and personal attention that is the hallmark of Haute Couture. Because so few people can afford to buy Haute Couture, the business often runs at a loss – such is the price of art. The fashion shows themselves can cost up to a million pounds to stage, and only a very few of the couture models shown each season are actually sold to the regular Couture clientele – around 1500 sales for each house.A salon such as Dior will make around 20 Couture bridal gowns a year. As one would expect, profits are often thin – amounting to less than ten percent of the gross profits of the Couture label, or sometimes less. However, Haute Couture is funded not by its garment orders, but by its licensing.
Licensing has become an essential part of modern day marketing for high fashion and is based on the prestige and desirability attached to a designer label. The internationally reknowned design house – known for its luxurious Haute Couture – produces a wide range of beauty products, from perfume and cosmetics through to boutique jewellry at an affordable level. The prestige that the house enjoys for its Haute Couture is also reflected in its licensed products. A consumer may not be able to buy a Couture outfit, but she will be able to buy a bottle of scent, or scarf, or the ‘RTW’ designer label garments. By so doing, the consumer can feel a part of the ‘dream’, and enjoy the cachet associated with a given designer label. At the same time she convinces herself that she is every bit as exclusive as the 1,000 women and supermodels who regularly wear Haute Couture gowns. These licensed items provide large profits for the design house through the volume of mass market international sales, therefore both the Ready-to-wear and Couture beauty industries employ a huge workforce that produce the perfume and accessories which finances their Couture operations, and which enables the house to continue producing exquisite collections in the style to which its clients are accustomed – even if it is at a loss. The world of Haute Couture is a heady, intoxicating and addictive one. Very few women will get to sample the overt luxury it offers, but many will wear outfits that have been copied or influenced by its innovative style. For, perhaps the Couture’s most important, satisfying and enduring role comes from the inspiration that it has consistently provided over the past 150 years for all those who are passionate about fashion, style and art.
HAUTE COUTURE: FALL/WINTER 2017/18 collection
‘ARENA OF DREAMS’ ARTICLE TEXT ©copyright Gary Alston 2017.House Of Retro/Gary Alston makes no claim to the ownership of the images appearing on this page.