Charles James: Beyond Fashion: A Conversation with Harold Koda

By Steve Kroeter July 16, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge, Harold Koda, talks about the Met’s current exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion (on view through August 10) and the accompanying catalogue. Fashion designer Charles James (1906–1978) is often considered to be America’s first couturier—a sculptor of fabric who defined 1940s and 1950s glamour.

Cover image from Charles James: Beyond Fashion (2014, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Charles James, Ball Gowns, 1948. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © CondéNast

Designers & Books: James during his lifetime never received the level of professional recognition he hoped for and thought he deserved, yet his current resurrection at the Met is being enthusiastically received. What’s your opinion about why his reputation never really cohered during his lifetime? And to what do you attribute his appeal today?
Harold Koda: While James himself might have felt, especially toward the end of his life, that he did not receive the professional acclaim he thought he deserved, he in fact won every award given by the fashion industry at the time. Not only did he win the Coty Award, twice, and the Woolmark Award, he also received the prestigious Neiman-Marcus Award. Then more than a decade after he closed his house, he was given a Guggenheim Foundation Grant, something that had never been awarded to a fashion designer.

He also had the support and accolades of some of the greatest dressmakers of the 20th century beginning with Paul Poiret, and including Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior. Even Elsa Schiaparelli was an advocate of his work and said to have purchased his designs. There is no greater endorsement than those from your most accomplished peers.

His business, even when it was at its peak and had over time a number of licensees, was never a mass-scaled commercial model. There was never a large production of his designs, and he frankly made too few to register on the consciousness of the general public.

Charles James with Model, 1948. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

James can only really be understood as an artist who worked with fashion as his medium. He was never a commercial fashion designer in any conventional definition of the term. His work establishes fashion as a form of creative expression that can achieve the conceptual and technical refinements of any other art form. But his appeal to us today derives primarily from the singular beauty of his work and the amazing originality of his approach,

The Book

Charles James: Beyond Fashion Harold Koda
Jan Glier Reeder
Ralph Rucci

D&B: “Beyond Fashion” was the working title chosen by James for the autobiography that he began on several occasions but never finished. For someone so concerned about his place in history, why do you think he never finished the book?
HK: In one sense, he never truly finished anything. Even his most resolved and perfected designs were constantly revisited and reworked. He was a man whose creative achievements are all a preparation for the next thing and penultimate expressions rather than final statements. The open-endedness of his process, perhaps, made any summation of his life impossible. As Diana Vreeland said, “James would rather work on a dress for a party than have the dress go to the party.” He probably enjoyed the thinking about his book and the reworking of its contents more than any satisfaction he would have in seeing it completed.

D&B: What do you think the “beyond” was that James had in mind?
HK: By the end of his life James was convinced that he was a major creative force, a complete original, and someone whose peers were the world’s greatest composers, writers, painters, or sculptors. He definitely saw himself as above the commercial fray of the fashion system. So on the most basic level, the title suggests his belief in his work as something beyond the prosaic business aspects of fashion. But there is another nuance: he was not self-conscious about the fact that he designed dresses, because he felt that what he had achieved was something so far beyond the limits of its traditional practice.

Harold Koda, curator and co-author of Charles James: Beyond Fashion. Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Tatijana Shoan

D&B: You write in the catalogue that James “elevated fashion to a fine art.” And as you suggest, there are quotes from James that support the idea that he placed himself in the company of Brancusi, Picasso, Faulkner, and Shostakovich. Can you elaborate on the ways James’s work can be seen as fine art—and the actual significance of that?
HK: He was essentially an autodidact with only the rudiments of exposure to the haute couture. He was someone who never really conformed to the calendar and responsibilities expected of a fashion business. His design process was alla prima, very vigorous and hands-on. A James creation was only completed when he felt it was completed, and never based on any external requirements or expectations of partners or clients. When you see works that have evolved out of a process predicated exclusively on some conceptual principle and a purely creative exploration, it transcends any notion of utility or craft.

D&B: In the history of fashion, and also in contemporary fashion, how unusual is James in accomplishing that—elevating fashion to fine art?
HK: He is rare, but not alone: Poiret, Balenciaga, Vionnet, Grès, Miyake, Alaïa, Beene, Kawakubo, it is possible to go on. Since the 1970s, there has been an increase in the number of designers who have created extraordinary art works. More astonishingly, they have also been economically viable, and in some instances, quite commercially successful. That is something James never achieved, and is a heartening development in fashion.

D&B: How did you settle on the particular Cecil Beaton photograph that you chose for the cover of the exhibition catalogue?
HK: It captures the high point of James’s career in New York. As an Anglo-American designer, we wanted to underscore the importance of his New York period. The image establishes the allure and glamour so intrinsic to James’s seductive aesthetic and is the teaser to the exhibition which is quite the opposite of the fashion photograph. There is an austerity in the exhibition’s rigorous analytical assessment of the work. The designs of few other couturiers could withstand the kind of scrutiny we apply to the pieces.

Charles James, Butterfly Gown, 1954. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

D&B: There are a number of sexually forthright terms and phrases quoted from James in the book and also noted in the exhibition, for example: “libidinous”, “eroticism”, “erotic grace”, and “rehearsal for propagation.” What’s your opinion about James’s view of the relationship between sex and fashion?
HK: He thought sexual allure was the motivating principle of fashion. Subliminal or explicit, James felt the erotic was an essential element of a successful design.

Charles James, Evening Dress, 1946. Black silk-rayon velvet, red silk satin, brown silk faille, black silk crepe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954 (2009.300.795) Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis

D&B: James faced a whole range of challenges in his personal life: financial, legal, marital, and health-related. Do you see evidence or the impact of any of these difficulties reflected in his design work?
HK: No. His work was his life. The disappointments, disorganization, and dysfunctions outside his act of designing do not seem to manifest themselves in his designs. But perhaps a psychoanalyst would see connections that eluded us.

D&B: The Met received an extensive gift of archival material from James’s last assistant, some of which is shown in the catalogue and the exhibition. What was your most surprising finding as you sorted through this wealth of photographs, correspondence, official papers and notes, clippings, and “heaps of ephemera”?
HK: For all the self-defeating aspects of James’s temperament, he was in the end an exceptional archivist of his own achievements. While there was, at first glance, a disheartening sense of a chaotic, Collyer brothers’ lack of organization, James knew what was most important about his work, and preserved the documents associated with its creation, much of it retrospectively. In the entropic confusion of materials, there emerges a clear method to the madness.

Charles James, “Clover Leaf” Evening Dress, 1953. White silk satin, white silk faille, black silk-rayon velvet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth Fairall, 1953 (C.I.53.73) Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis

D&B: What do you see as James’s primary legacy? Is there anyone in the fashion world today that you see as standing on his shoulders?
HK: His work is a cri de coeur for the dedicated pursuit of originality and creative expression even at the cost of personal relationships and material comforts. His legacy is his relatively small, but astonishing body of disciplined, obsessional, and unprecedented works. In this country, Ralph Rucci and Zac Posen have a direct connection to the structural rigor of James, and in Paris, Azzedine Alaïa is as rigorous in his pursuit of novel and transformative techniques.

View Harold Koda’s Profile

Enter our drawing to win one of two copies of the catalogue Charles James: Beyond Fashion. Here are details on how to enter.

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