By plucking the British-American couturier Charles James from obscurity for its annual fashion exhibition, the Costume Institute once again shines a light on a misunderstood master. Surely a bid to recapture the blockbuster success of its last solo show, Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty, head curator Harold Koda and consulting curator Jan Glier Reeder take pains to convey the uncomfortable vérité of his life and career, his prickly personality, and his self-entitled swath through high society. Here, little-known facts about Charles James that might surprise you…
— Born to the upper class in 1906, Charles James was openly gay by his late teens, garnering intense condemnation from his father. James once said he embraced fashion “out of a compulsion to be involved in a business of which my father disapproved.”
— James’ mother and sisters were forbidden by his father, a British army officer, from patronizing his hat shop in Chicago — a vocation inconceivable for a member of his class. His mother dispatched well-heeled friends in her place.
— James was completely self-taught, which is to say, unaware of sewing basics. The fashion historian Richard Martin said James “pretended to give serious thought to the structural elements of the dress, but a study . . . shows that he simply applied more and more layers until he achieved the needed density and shape.”
— He was friends and neighbors with the playwright Jean Cocteau, who claimed to have saved James’s life after a suicide attempt over a spurned romance. James created a death tableau with candles and mirrors, but the inhalant by which he planned to poison himself was so painful that he had Cocteau rush him to the hospital.
— Despite his avowed gayness, he married a wealthy divorcée from Kansas 20 years his junior. They produced a son and a daughter, celebrated by James with an ill-fated children’s line. Princess Grace of Monaco ordered 18 pieces for her daughter Caroline.
— James’ most famous ballgowns were the Clover Leaf, the Butterfly, the Petal, and the Swan (so complicated that it underwent a CT scan for a 2011 exhibit at the Chicago History Museum). Austine Hearst, the former gossip columnist who married William Randolph Hearst, commissioned the Clover Leaf for Eisenhower’s Inaugural ball in 1953, but it couldn’t be made in time.
— James won a Coty Award in 1950 and a Neiman Marcus Award in 1953, to which he wore jeans, saying, “The blue jean is the only art form in apparel.”
— James and his family evaded creditors for year. The IRS caught up in 1957, seizing his showroom, while his office was raided by city marshals. Though it was not a bitter divorce, his wife left him and took the children back to Kansas.
— In 1964, James wound up at the Chelsea Hotel and lived in squalid conditions. Addicted to speed, he received only the rare commission and died penniless in 1978.