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Charles James in 1942
Charles James in 1942Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The secret history of Charles James

The Met Gala will pay tribute to the genius couturier who dressed the stars and inspired Dior. But who was he?

Cristóbal Balenciaga praised him as the “only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to pure art”. Christian Dior called him the “greatest talent of my generation”, and the basis for Dior's revolutionary New Look. He’s the new subject of the Metropolitan Museum’s annual fashion exhibition, and his work is meant to inspire the celebrities who will flock to the red carpet for tonight’s Met Gala. But who, exactly, is Charles James?

“To the fashion specialist, everyone knows him, but to the audience at large, he is one of those names that, because he doesn’t have a surviving label or brand, is forgotten', says Harold Koda, curator in charge at the Costume Institute. 

James is often cited as America’s first (and greatest) couturier, though he was actually British and was born in 1906. In the 20s, the openly gay designer moved to Chicago to escape the wrath of his homophobic father, beginning his career as a milliner to society ladies of the Windy City. As he once told a friend, he took to fashion “out of a compulsion to be involved in a business of which my father disapproved”.

As he leapt from hat-making to dresses, he was championed by Diana Vreeland and dressed the crème de la crème of American high society, including Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich. Even other designers came running: Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel put in orders for his creations. (Coco didn’t have to pay, but Elsa did.)

But James wasn’t just a dressmaker to the stars; he saw himself as an artist and a sculptor. His masterpieces were often unfathomably complex: his most iconic dress, the Clover Leaf ball gown, weighed ten pounds and used thirty pattern pieces alone. (It also looks, when viewed from above, exactly like a four-leaf clover.) A 2011 show at the Chicago History Museum resorted to CT-scan technology to explain how his dresses worked. 

A master manipulator, James was also combining textiles and distressing materials long before it became trendy. He mixed velvet, satin, taffeta and tulle and was a master of cut and cloth. If not for his technical wizardry, his dresses would have been unwearable – but society ladies glided across the dancefloor with ease. His persistence and dedication were the stuff made of legends: he sometimes locked his staff into the studio overnight if he thought they weren’t working hard enough.

But it wasn’t just old-fashioned ball gowns and frocks: James was also an inventive visionary. His inventions included a down-filled puffer jacket (which Dali applauded as a “soft sculpture”) and an early version of the sports bra. He beat Diane von Furstenburg to the wrap dress by about four decades – the Taxi dress, held together with a few hooks, was envisioned to be so simple a woman could slip it on in the back of a cab. 

His talent was tempered by a foul temper and a mean streak. James once dismissed a prospective customer with the words, “I couldn’t possibly make anything for a frump like you.” Legendary photographer Cecil Beaton attended Harrow with James, and wrote in his diary: “His talent was marvellous; his wit bitter… No one could cope with his temperament for long.” 

Not many could cope with his prices, either. He charged astronomical prices that shocked even the most well-heeled socialite, and once spent $20,000 on perfecting the fit of a sleeve. His eye for detail was, unfortunately, not extended to his finances: in the 50s, the business sank under the weight of its debts. Not even an unexpected marriage to Nancy Lee Gregory, a rich Kansas divorcee, provided enough money to stave off the creditors. (As for the marriage, the ever sharp-tongued James commented, “all of society is double-gaited”.) 

By 1964, James was divorced, financially ruined and living out of a room in the Chelsea Hotel, surviving off commissions from a few loyal clients. He’d alienated his old friends and champions by picking fights and engaging in spats, including Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland. But, ever the social butterfly, he could still be found hanging out with Andy Warhol and chilling at Studio 54, where he once appeared in a giant sombrero. He was also planning to write a book about his experiences: Beyond Fashion, the name of the Met exhibition, takes its name from the intended name for his memoirs.

He passed away of pneumonia and heart disease on 23 September 1978, with six months of rent due – but, in true Charles James style, he died keenly aware of his genius. When ambulance medics arrived the day before to check on James, he told them:  “It may not mean anything to you, but I am popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world.”