CHARLES JAMES: ‘A PERSONAL MEMOIR WITH NANCY JAMES’ AS TOLD TO GARY ALSTON

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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PHOTOGRAPH ELIOT ELISOFON:  FASHION GUILD AWARD OCTOBER 1950   ©copyright LIFE magazine  1950.

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PHOTOGRAPH ELIOT ELISOFON:   FASHION GUILD AWARD OCTOBER 1950  ©copyright LIFE magazine 1950.

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PHOTOGRAPH ELIOT ELISOFON:  FASHION GUILD AWARD OCTOBER 1950  ©copyright LIFE magazine 1950.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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CECIL BEATON PHOTOGRAPH  ©copyright 1936 THE  CONDÉ NAST PUBLICATIONS INC.

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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.”

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Babe Paley

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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”.

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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.

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‘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.

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