Discovering the Underpinnings of Charles James – A New Exhibition

“Balloon” evening coat made as a ball gown for
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr.- 1960
(All photos Lieba Nesis)

The Charles James “Beneath The Dress” exhibition opening was held in the Grand Gallery of the National Arts Club from 7:00-9:00 PM. There were hundreds of people who attended, prompting security to shut the doors because it was filled beyond capacity. This week-long show features over 60 of James’s fashion and erotic drawings from the collection of his friend R. Couri Hay, which have never been publicly viewed. Additionally, pictures of James and his models taken by noted photographer Anton Perich, and a short film utilizing footage from Perich and Hay’s documentary were shown.

Jean Shafiroff, Victor de Souza, Chiu-Ti Jansen and Joy Marks

The crowd ranged from authors Jay McInerney and Michael Gross to “real housewives” Sonja Morgan and Countess de Lesseps. Moreover, socialites Lucia Hwong Gordon, Jean Shafiroff, Chiu-Ti Jansen and Prince Dimitri were just a small sampling of the illustrious crowd. There were women in ball gowns and jewels, marveling at the collection while a seven-piece band played and sang, with a select few choosing to dance. Charles James exceptional ability to design has been immortalized; however, these rudimentary artworks reveal his facility in painting and drawing as well. The sketches of women’s clothing include gowns and capes done for William Randolph Hearst’s Jr.’s wife, Salvadore Dali’s spouse and none other than Madam Chanel.

Jay McInerney and Countess de Lesseps

The drawings span from the 1930’s to the 1960’s and depict voluminous gowns and coats in a simple one-dimensional fashion.  The totality of the display provides interesting insights into the makeup of James. Much of the art is X-Rated, with a lot of male buttockses, and penises displayed from varying angles and positions;  the man next to me remarked it should be called the “cocks and balls” exhibit. There was a lot of material that would cause my grandmother to at least blush, so it is bold to produce such work in the 1930’s, a period marked by modesty and prudishness.

Charles James paintings of male genitalia

These drawings were indicative of a very sexual man who was motivated by lust and desire. Anton Perich, who met James at the Chelsea hotel, remembered him as a great designer who became a radical punk at the end of his life. Perich, said James was eccentric and tempestuous and always seemed to be struggling financially. Perich, whose photos were on the wall, said that James was “bisexual’ and Perich found the sensuality in which James would touch his models when he was clothing them “very inspiring.”

Michael Bidlo, Colette and Anthony Haden Guest

However, most of his erotic photos depict the male genitalia so it seems as though his true ardor was directed towards men. The film documents his financial hardships, starting with the opening of his first store in London in 1930 which went bankrupt soon after and a trip to New York, motivated in part by the necessity of escaping his creditors. Anthony Haden-Guest, the noted author and art critic, who knew James well and interviewed him for an article, said the quality of his fashion design was true art, up there amongst the greats such as Courreges and Galanos. However, he found his paintings “okay and designey” and said that James most noteworthy characteristic was his “bad timing.” Guest recounted how James failed right before the wave of financial success produced by the business of merchandising resulted in great affluence for his fellow designers. Furthermore, Guest remembers him as being happy and friendly without the sour and bitter demeanor portrayed by the media.

R. Couri Hay and Dianne Bernhard, President
of the National Arts Club

Charles James has attained mythological status in the fashion world for his art of sculpting fabric into ingenious fashion masterpieces. Even though he never had formal dressmaking training, he was viewed as America’s first couturier and revered by artists and designers alike. The last fourteen years of his life were spent in the Chelsea hotel, a refuge for artists who were experiencing financial woes. It is paradoxically tragic, that the perfectionism which produced great works of “fashion art” also resulted in spiraling costs and fiscal irresponsibility, ultimately leading to James descent into penury. The Costume Institute’s James Exhibit was the fifth most viewed in its 25-year history. The National Arts Club display, as well as the Metropolitan’s exhibit, celebrate his life and contributions, providing us a glimpse into the inner life of this enigmatic man, and ensuring that this fashion legend will never again fade into obscurity.

Lieba Nesis

My love of fashion, writing and photography were something that always dominated my lifestyle however it wasn't until I was approached by the editor of Lookonline that I realized I could utilize these three skills in combination.

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