The Met Gala has come and gone, and with it, a flurry of best and worst dressed lists, gossip, interviews, and advertising. It is one of the most prominent events on the social calendar of the year, but somehow, the message or theme behind the gala itself is almost never mentioned. This year it was Charles James; often referred to as “America’s First Couturier”. And yes, he totally deserves that prestigious title, so I’ve decided to dedicate my post to this great fashion designer and innovator.
I have to be honest: I had never heard Charles James’ name before until a few months ago. So why is this relatively unknown man (unless you really know your fashion history of course 😉 ) credited behind many of this last century’s most important movements in fashion? Dior even credited him with the New Look!
He was born in 1906 in Britain, was sent to the Harrow School, promptly expelled for a “sexual escapade”, and opened his first hat shop under the name “Charles Boucheron” in Chicago at the age of 19. Two years later, he left Chicago for Long Island with the huge sum of 70 cents under his name and a few (wonderful) hats as his only possessions and opened a hat shop once again in Queens, NY. There, he also began designing his first clothes.
But where did he learn to sew? He spent a bit of time in Paris studying, but he was in fact primarily self-taught. Cue the awe.
James regarded fashion as art, and treated it as such. He ignored the fashion seasons and reworked on his designs as he saw fit. I cannot imagine any designer in his right mind doing that now (unless you’re a fashion conglomerate like Zara or Brandy Melville, but they are hardly haute-couture).
The design of his creations is simply superb, and I’m sure they look even more stunning in real life:
That, my friends, is fashion’s answer to the Last Supper.
Look at the back of this dress:
The draping is perfect (and the photography!):
But James’ perfectionism, the trait that brought him stardom, also proved to be his Achilles heel. He lost most of his money, his wife left him, and Karl Lagerfeld even remarked with his usual unflinching candor that “He was a tiny little midget with dyed hair – the most unpleasant man I ever met. I think he was his own worst enemy”. In the fall of 1978, James fell ill, and as Vogue writes “he kept the ambulance men waiting as he finished primping his face and tenue [..], ‘it may not mean anything to you’, James told them as they waited to take him to the hospital, ‘but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world'”. He died later that night.
So I hope that next time you read an article about the Met Gala or just scan a best / worst dressed list, you remember Charles James, and notice his ghost lurking behind those beautiful dresses worn this year.
p.s. My personal favorite of the Met Gala was Suki Waterhouse’s Burberry dress. Also, if you want to check out Charles James creations in real life, head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC – there’s an exhibit featuring his work running until August!