Charles James Beneath the Dress

Charles James Beneath the Dress

The Designer's Never-Before-Seen Drawings
on display at The National Arts Club

By Joe Alexander
"I don't believe in homosexuality. I believe that people are sexual or they're not," said designer Charles James in a 1977 documentary conducted by writer R. Couri Hay and filmmaker Anton Perich. The statement is a fitting lead-in to a surprising new exhibition at The National Arts Club, September 29 through October 5, featuring James' mixed media fashion and erotic drawings. "Charles James: Beneath the Dress" will include 60 works by James from Hay's private collection; many of the works in the exhibition, being organized by The National Arts Club club's Office of Fine Arts under the direction of Dianne B. Bernhard have never been seen before. "The drawings are very explicit," says Hay. "Beneath the Charles James dress, the one thing you find is sex."

Also included in the exhibition will be drawings of many of James most monumental works, such as the sculpted white satin eiderdown evening jacket regarded as the first puffer coat and the black-and-white Four-Leaf Clover ball gown that James considered at the time as the last dress he was ever going to make – both of these masterworks were featured prominently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent exhibition, "Charles James: Beyond Fashion," that closed August 10. "Gertrude Lawrence once said, 'I have never worn anything so proper and so indecent at the same time,'" recalls Hay of the English actress' response to a James ball gown that folded down the middle, much like a vagina. "There is always a point of tension both in the drawings and in his clothes and there was a line between vulgar and taste, between haute couture and scandalous. Charles walked the line to that little point."

"Dressing them was a vicarious form of making love, so that they could make a great impression on the men. I wanted that," James told Hay in the 1977 documentary of his famous female patrons. "I will say that dressmaking is the most vital if it carries with it a form of lovemaking from the man who doesn't want to make it with the woman."

James, who passed away in 1978, has experienced renewed interest in his work after the acclaimed Met exhibition, curated by Harold Koda and fashion historian Jan Reeder, displayed inside the Costume Institute's new Anna Wintour Costume Center. The exhibit included a sampling of Hay's private collection of drawings and artifacts from the designer's atelier, donated by James' protégé, Homer Layne, as well as many of James' most famous sculptural gowns, worn by women in high society and Hollywood's leading ladies.
Yet, despite his many groundbreaking creations for the wealthiest women in the world, including Millicent Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Babe Paley, Gypsy Rose Lee, Elizabeth Arden, and Gloria Vanderbilt, James suffered from financial hardship in his later years and was near ruin financially but not spiritually, when Hay made the documentary featuring more than 24 hours of interviews, done over three years, before the designer's passing. The series, "The Charles James Story," is currently being shown on Time Warner channel 56 on Monday nights, though January 5, 2015. Said James in the film, "I don't think Americans have any sensitivity, as far as the arts go. We have all sorts of foundations but we hand out money to the wrong people… I move forward with difficulty, but I move forward."

In the documentary, James even confessed to considering going on welfare to help pay his medical bills. "I helped take care of him in a friendly way," says Hay, who first met James at the designer's 60th birthday party at Max's Kansas City. Their friendship until James' death even caused Hay's breakup with another icon of fashion at the time – Halston – with whom James had a very contemptuous relationship. "Instead of just giving Charles money, I started to buy these drawings from him," says Hay.

"James' drawings were more powerful and more to the point than any of the work submitted by so called 'regular artists'," said Robert Motherwell of James when he received the Guggenheim Fellowship for his dressmaking techniques in 1975. "I have never met Charles James, I don't particularly need to, but I think that Charles James is a genius."

In addition to the mixed media drawings, the exhibition at The National Arts Club will also include a short film crafted from the footage from the Hay-Perich documentary as well as 24 of Perich's photographs of James taken inside the designer's multiple suites at the Chelsea Hotel. "I met Charles when I first came to New York and had an interest in fashion and famous figures, people who had contributed to the culture of the nation," says Hay, who is currently working on a book detailing his close relationship with James, the first American fashion designer to show in Paris. "He helped in my own fields as a writer and reporter and was an invaluable mentor to me… He was almost a father figure for me in New York."

Following the Met exhibition, this current showing of this archive of James' designs, and Harvey Weinstein and Georgina Chapman's recent purchase of the rights to James' name, nearly 30 years after his death Charles James is finally receiving the acclaim he long deserved and never received. "Charles once told me, 'I remained a myth because there's not enough evidence of my work because I don't have the workers to create the clothes," recalls Hay. "I would wish for other who would one day influence fashion, and have the guts and ability to do so, to live through me when I'm gone."

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