I did several of these, then didn’t do any for several weeks because I am both lazy and terrible, but Monday is the Met Gala (aka the Super Bowl of Fashion), which means we all need a warm up to get ready for the sartorial onslaught next week. This year’s Gala is dedicated to Charles James, the twentieth century designer referred to as “America’s first couturier”. Of the important twentieth century designers, James is a top-fiver, alongside Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga and Versace. I would actually put him in the top three (with Dior for the New Look and Chanel for the little black dress) as James’s influence still reigns supreme throughout fashion. Zac Posen, for instance, is directly influenced by James, and a lot of people ascribe Dior’s New Look (arguably the most iconic and revolutionary fashion moment in the twentieth century) to James’s influence. So let’s ooh and ahh at James’s beautiful collection of museum-worthy gowns.
Arguably James’s most famous silhouette is the Butterfly, a tulle dress with a voluminous fishtail. It’s a knockout, the kind of dress that demands opera gloves and a sweeping staircase from which to descend. What’s really great about it, though, is the construction. James layered multi-colored tulle to create the almost iridescent effect of the dress. It’s too bad the surviving Butterfly dresses are archived—it must be a beautiful mover.
Another of James’s top designs is the Swan dress, a traditional ball gown take on the Butterfly. Again, with the layers of tulle and cut of the sweeping hem, it’s got to look amazing in motion, but alas. They’re all archived.
My personal favorite James gown is the Four Leaf Clover, a structured ball gown that was first photographed in 1953 (as worn by Austine Hearst—it’s possible she had it earlier than that). This dress would not go amiss on a red carpet today, and from it you can clearly see the connection to Zac Posen and Vivienne Westwood. It’s such a great silhouette James made it two different ways, in both a black and white and more detailed embroidered version. They’re both crazy amazing.
James was renowned for his fishtail silhouettes, most famously for the Butterfly but this green silk number is stunning, but the black and white gown gives me heart palpitations. I would love to see a tall drink of water like Jennifer Lawrence in it—it puts that bridal Dior number she wore to the Oscars to shame.
And finally, a quirky James look, Petal and its more traditional ball gown sister. It’s a girlish, flirty dress but what really gets me about this dress is that aside from the typical built-in boning in the bodice, its shape is constructed entirely from fabric. No cheatery ribbing or framework is used to form the boxy skirt—it’s all built up with wadding. James dresses can be heavy because he used so much fabric to construct them, but GOD. CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW IT MOVES?