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Charles James: Portrait of an ‘Unreasonable’ Designer

This is what the fashion world owes Charles James: down jackets; the wrap dress; bold shoulders; cocoon coats; zippered dresses; bustles and other Victorian or Edwardian elements in modern fashion; unusual color combinations such as ice blue with amber and pale rose; ribboned cloaks, along with synthetic fabrics.
James is probably best known for his flamboyant evening gowns, which were built upon complex structures, such as the four-leaf-clover gown and the telephone evening dress. But he also designed the first sports bra for Mary Ellen Hecht, a department store heiress who was a niece of Gertrude Stein’s.
James, who is often called the only true American couturier, was an imaginative and inventive designer who influenced generations of others throughout the world, among them Christian Dior, Halston, Schiaparelli and Yves Saint Laurent. The New Look owed a great deal to James’ exploration of Victorian silhouettes, while Saint Laurent was particularly influenced by his color sense. James had many museum exhibitions throughout his career, including one at the Met’s Costume Institute in 2014, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.”
“Dior believes that he copied him,” says Michèle Gerber Klein, the author of a new book about James, “Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man/Fame/Fashion/Art” (Rizzoli New York).

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