Thursday, April 7, 2011

Charles James Was Apparently Rather Insufferable

I think I've made my love for the work of Charles James known around here. He created masterpieces during the heyday of glamorous design and set himself apart as the "greatest American couturier" (according to Balenciaga). I've always been fascinated by the elaborate architecture of James's gowns. With their padding, boning, and massive tulle underskirts, you'd think it would be any seamstress's dream to inspect their construction. So I was surprised to hear someone whose opinion I value greatly in these matters declare him to be a bit overrated. The issue? His small body of work. (That's not a euphemism, I swear.) James's productive years were pretty short, his output was perhaps a bit underwhelming in scope, and he's known as much for having been a terrible business man as he was for his gorgeous gowns.

Still, I was disappointed to read in this month's Vogue that he sounds like he was an all-around hideous person as well. The article, called "The Cutting Edge," is this month's Nostalgia column and was written by a former client of James's, M.E. Hecht. Hecht worked with James starting in 1955, saying without a discernible hint of irony that her "youth, money, and willingness to try anything once" made her the ideal James client. (Darling, your elitism is showing.)

There's very little actual nostalgia in the article, unless reminiscing about an obnoxious man's temper tantrums and arrogance counts as such. James loved to scream at his "beautiful, young, and male" assistants before firing them after a matter of days or weeks. But the real issue for me was the author's recounting of James's feelings on other designers:
Charlie considered many designers "dressmakers," amateurs, or, on very rare occasions, talented amateurs. He did consider Balenciaga a near-competitor.
How very generous of him!
Of Chanel: After her use of jersey, "What else has she produced?"
I don't know, just one of the most enduring and recognizable global brands? Oh, and tweed jackets.
Of Dior: "He appears to think lengthening and shortening hemlines constitutes as fashion."
BLASPHEMY. NOW YOU'VE CROSSED A LINE, SIR.

Though I did have to laugh at his Schiaperelli quip:
"Without Dali and a dead fur animal, where would she be?"
Overall, the author seems a bit oblivious that she's just painted a brutally ugly portrait of James, and ends on a wistful note: "For those of us who knew him, the world is grayer and poorer for his absence." (Even though the two had stopped speaking by 1960.) Mmm-kay.

I think, as a reader of this article, I was supposed to feel I was offered a rare glimpse into the private world of a colorful, madcap genius. But instead I just felt slightly offended and uncomfortable with the author's admissions and blithe romanticizing of an ugly personality. Sometimes reading Vogue makes me feel icky, and this was one of those times. Perhaps the combination of money, high society, "Life with Andre," and Plum Sykes is a little nauseating. Anyone else?

52 comments:

  1. It's always best to not get too close to one's heroes. They turn out to be all too human! He was a great artist, if nothing else.

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  2. These dresses are just...wow.
    Greetings Annette

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  3. I guess I am somewhat removed from the designer world. The last time I read Vogue I was in a long line at the supermarket, we passed it among ourselves. The time before that while my roots were being chemically altered at the hairdressers. I suppose that one studies the great designers for inspiration and admiration and I'm sorry another hero has fallen. In any respect, Charlie was an amazing designer and still deserves our respect for his skill.

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  4. A long-time subscriber, I gave up Vogue several years ago after watching it slide from cautious interest into full-on acceptance and even promotion of plastic surgery.

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  5. yeah, I have always had that feeling about Vogue. First time I've heard someone vocalize it. I rarely purchase the magazine and every time I do, I come away with that vaguely icky feeling.

    And maybe that is why I know squat about fashion!
    hee hee, thanks for reading Vogue and blogging about it!

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  6. I stopped reading Vogue years ago because it always makes me feel a bit icky with the uber-elitism and hints of snobbery. It may show pretty dresses and have (occasional) redeeming bits and pieces, but I can find most of that online anyway. ;) lol.

    Not surprised to find out that CJ was such a pain in the rear; I remember reading somewhere years ago that he was a "difficult" personality to put it mildly. The fact that he was so condescending towards some of these "design greats" is hilarious to me though! As much as I admire the construction and beauty of Charles James' work, it isn't the zenith of fashion.

    ♥ Casey

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  7. One person's view of another is not the final word. Much of Vogue is written in the gossipy, insider-snarkiness of the elite. It lost me a long time ago when they condescended to wardrobe-on-a- budget articles that included $500 skirts and tops. They come to "bury Ceasar, not to praise him."

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  8. I've also avoided Vogue for years, partly for the icky reason, and partly because it just seems to have no conception of reality (doesn't everybody buy $25,000 bracelets?)

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  9. Sad. I, too, adore his designs, especially the clover gown. I think seeing that gown for the first time was when it clicked how these cool shapes were made with foundations and boning and horsehair and stuff.

    I used to subscribe to Vogue for the "ideas" but stopped because I just couldn't relate to most of it and I always felt like they were trying (and embarassingly for me, sometimes succeeding) in making me feel inadequate. Whatever - don't need it. :-)

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  10. Wow! Wearing those gowns, they must have made quite an entrance. Do you suppose they lowered them into a room through a hole in the roof?

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  11. Oh, I hear you on the Vogue thing. Plum Sykes is by far their most insufferable writer. I also hate how they describe the body type of every person being quoted in the article. Why does it matter that a dermatologist is "thin and toned" anyway?

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  12. I bought this past years Vogue September issue after watching the documentary about the creation of it. I sat in a parking lot and paged through over 700 pages..one by one. Well, actually I never finished it and it sits under my bed still. What I came away the most from the magazine is the youth of the models. I just could not see me, a 50 something women,no matter how much money I might have, wearing something modeled by a 13 year old. It just makes no sense.

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  13. I think sometimes the "rich and famous" forget that not everyone will agree or accept there "rants" or "behavior" as "the word". It does give you a creepy feeling that they think they are far superior and we are hanging on every word or action so we can be like "them".

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  14. I don't believe I've ever cracked a Vogue in my life, but now I might have to simply out of morbid curiosity. I really have no concept of high fashion. Shopping in a "fancy place" in my family means venturing to the big Palais Royale at the mall.

    I'm with Francesca: Admire your heroes' work but don't get too wrapped up in who they are as mere humans.

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  15. The dresses are fantastic, but I love Elsa Schiaperelli, really, I think she was inspired.

    The truth is I think that Vogue really speaks to an impossible demographic, it has nothing to do with day to day living and paints personalities as fabulous or fun when they are really mean and horrible. It's the Truman Capote effect, and I'm sorry but insulting people doesn't automatically make you a better human being.

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  16. I feel the same way about Vogue and actually gave up reading it years ago. It just seems so elitist and out of touch. I feel like that kind of writing/editing may have worked to sell magazines in a different era, but people are much too cynical to waste time on things that are just not relatable to their lives.

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  17. I'm quite certain that Plum Sykes is a sort of android created by Anna and Andre as the "perfect Vogue girl" and so I read whatever she writes for good laughs, even though she thinks she's taken seriously. My favorite ever was a piece she wrote during the writers's strike a few years back:

    http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/41565/

    She was writing about what to wear to a picket line.

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  18. If nothing else you and I will always bond on our shared hatred of Plum Skykes...! Her 'by the age of 37...' quote will live forever in one of the dark nooks of my brain.

    I have a very funny story about her that you must remind me to share one day.

    CG

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  19. Very thought-provoking post. I share your admiration of Charles James' work, but I don't necessarily agree with the observation that he had a small body of work. I think that much of the era was James-inspired and that there are still a lot of gowns yet to be shaken loose from the estates of incredibly wealth women.

    From all the accounts I've ever read, he was a terrible businessman with a real talent for screwing himself over. And a real horror show of a person.

    Thanks for the post!

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  20. Gertie, I have to commend you for attracting by far the most intelligent followers (and hence comments) I've come across on the blogosphere (current commenter excepted). This posting has produced quite the conversation - I was fascinated by every single comment. How many of us have thought, 'Wow, I must be the only one who was sitting in my bedroom, staring at Vogue, feeling inadequate that not only could I not afford a $25K bracelet, but I didn't want one.'
    Thank you, Gertie. I like your blog for the beautiful clothing and care and thought you put into everything you do. Keep it up.

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  21. I have bought exactly one issue of Vogue, the September issue from last year after watching that documentary. I was very underwhelmed.

    I have never heard of Charles James before, but those pictures...wow.

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  22. you just summed up EXACTLY why I stopped subscribing to Vogue a few years back. That certain icky feeling. Still buy an issue every once in a while but boy to I get what you mean!!!

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  23. I try to stay as far away from Vogue possible, in large part due to that 'icky' feeling you just described. Those dresses are still amazing, and my respect for his skill remains.

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  24. I stopped buying vogue when all the pictorials began to be unattractive to me. I never we liked the stories always seemed elitist to me.

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  25. A clothing designer dissing another designer? I'm shocked, shocked! It doesn't take much digging to find Coco's or Christian's snarky comments about their competitors, either. Today's designers are not any kinder--Lagerfeld, anyone?

    Yes, Charles James' output was small, and maybe he was a jerk who didn't have very good people skills and a doe-eyed young woman got her fantasy crushed. Does this make him a lousy person? Yes! Does it in any way mitigate his talent? Absolutely not.

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  26. Hi Gertie, just thought I'd drop a line as I've been following the blog for a few weeks now. I read a wee article about it in Sew Hip (which I really enjoy) as I have started to take dressmaking classes...I always enjoy your articles and really getting into the whole vintage dress vibe (as you can see here www.vivibijoux.com) Thank you for the inspiration! smile, Virginie

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  27. I used to read Vogue to goggle at the dresses. Now, the best reason to read it is Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer. His occasional digs at the glitterati make him an unusual choice for Vogue, but read him and see for yourself.

    And yes, Plum Sykes is insufferable. If it wasn't for anglophilia she'd never have a job at Vogue.

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  28. I have to agree, Vogue makes me feel icky, too. Even if I became a multi-millionaire tomorrow (don't I wish), I'd never spend $5,000.00 for a top just because it has a designer name. I can look at a picture and make it for a FRACTION.
    Even with that said the dresses are works of art.

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  29. "Sometimes reading Vogue makes me feel icky, and this was one of those times."

    Yeah, this. Except, in my case, I'd replace "sometimes" with "almost always." I tried subscribing a couple of years ago, mainly due to the fact that I was studying photography at the time, but eventually I couldn't justify buying it even for the pictures.

    Regarding the designer - I have to say, it doesn't really bother me. With the exception of finding out someone is a genuinely terrible person (i.e. bigot, criminal of some serious description), I don't find it too hard to keep the business and the personal separate. Revealing these details about the guy seems a bit too gossip-y and in rather poor taste.

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  30. I publicly confess to enjoying Vogue. Though I certainly share everyone's opinion of its excess of attitude. But c'mon, I really enjoy the fantasy and Grace Coddington is great. Plum Sykes, meh, and a terrible trashy writer to boot. Hamish Bowles, what a caricature! But who ever bought Vogue for the articles?There's a joke there somewhere. And if you haven't watched The September Issue -- do. Best moment for me is when Candy Pratts Price calls Anna Wintour "the pope" of fashion. It's a kick! The James gowns are dreamy!

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  31. Honestly, Vogue makes me ill. I get my high fashion fix on Style.com during the shows, and then read more mass market magazines like Lucky and Marie Claire for my vapid entertainment fix. Or sometimes Elle.

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  32. I purchase the odd issue of Vogue usually the September and March. I used to have a subscription but I don't have enough time to read it consistently these days. I just take Vogue for what it is - glossy, often ispirational photos of clothing, shoes and accessories that I'm not likely to ever see in person, let alone own, but that I still like to look at. It's kind of a guilty pleasure I guess. Vogue as a fashion magazine is at the head of its class in my opinion. But fashion magazines as a whole promote materialistic, sometimes elitist and exclusionary and certainly idealized notions of beauty. If we condemn Vogue I think we must condemn the whole class of them.

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  33. Ah, Vogue! I read it cover to cover each month for over 20 years before my first baby was born. I loved it so, but I can relate to your "icky" feeling. I think it has to do with getting lost in the magazine, then looking around at the real world after closing it. The escapism is fun for a while, but the thought that so much energy and resources are put into the frivolity of it all is unsettling.

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  34. i really dislike vouge. it seems like their articles are meant for women who don't existand definately are not me. its not a nice magazine

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  35. the Vintage SeamstressApril 7, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    I agree, I agree, I agree! I sometimes buy vogue looking for inspiration in terms of the beautiful fashion but more often than not I end up flipping agressively through the pages thinking "are these people really so shallow?" I also get an "icky" feeling so I'm actually not surprised that they would publich such an article as the Charles James one. In their high-fashion circles it seems they norm to passingly acknowledge great talent and then take a swipe at them. How catty.

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  36. For me, Vogue is like the Playboy of fashion. And I didn't buy it for the insightful articles either...

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  38. I agree that Vogue promotes an aesthetic detached from the average American woman-even one who cares about and likes fashion. The snootiness of the mag also sometimes makes me feel bad for reading it (the April letter from the editor wishing Grace Coddington a snarky happy birthday is a case in point). That said, I like Vogue as much for its outragousness as much as I like its fashion.

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  39. It's better to admire the work and not get too caught up in what sort of person he was. I often feel icky after I read Vogue, too, but Harper's Bazaar is even worse.

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  40. "M.E. Hecht. Hecht worked with James starting in 1955, saying without a discernible hint of irony that her 'youth, money, and willingness to try anything once' made her the ideal James client. (Darling, your elitism is showing.)"

    What exactly is elitist (or rather, obnoxiously elitist) about her description? This woman must be in her seventies and she's giving a straight assessment of her status at the time. Why does she need to cloak her statement in phony, disingenuous irony? If she wasn't a mannequin, but a normal customer, she must have been part of the moneyed classes to have been a James client. Darling, forced egalitarianism is just as bad as elitism.

    Is it really surprising that there are bitchy people in the superficial world of fashion?* As Francesca said, it's risky to engage in hero worship. Too often one's paragons turn out to have feet of clay.

    BTW, I am not a Dior fan, and some say that Balenciaga should have gotten credit for "The New Look."

    *Unfortunately, there are seriously nasty, vicious people in just about every field; the more competitive, the worse the ugliness is. Given a choice, I think it's better to have an idea of how the world really works, instead of empty gushing over someone's genius.

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  41. Incidentally, I gave up reading "Vogue" years ago -- too many articles on plastic surgery and the latest stratospherically expensive diet and exercise fads of the day.

    But I have never faulted "Vogue" for not having "affordable clothing." That's not what it's about. It attempts to present an ultimate fantasy, the pinnacle of fashion. If you want accessibility, you buy "Lucky."

    I happily figured out long ago that "Vogue" and I didn't care about the same things and we happily parted ways.

    The editorial content relating to subjects like fashion and art usually used to be pretty good, except for the time Kennedy Frasier had to formally retract certain libelous, outrageous things she wrote about the painter Lucian Freud and his daughters. (Whether they were true, who knows?)

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  42. I read somewhere on the net that Vogue magazine was for women about whom books will be written, and I would have to agree. (I'm thinking of Princess Di and the Kennedy females here. I doubt Vogue targets the Mother Theresa demographic.)

    In Vogue's defense, I don't think they try to portray themselves as a reference for the non-elite woman. To my mind, "In Style" and "Lucky" are far worse in that they try to appeal to the average middle-class woman, but still promote items that are far beyond most budgets or just plain reason. (I just picked up an old issue of "Lucky" and found a white cotton v-neck T-shirt for a mere $138. Please.)

    As for James, it's unfortunate that geniuses often get a pass for being jerks, but time dulls a multitude of sins. Beethoven wasn't exactly known for being a sweetie-pie, but you'll have to pry my CD of The Emperor Concerto out of my cold dead hands. I'm sure that if I had known him personally, I'd feel differently.

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  43. I think basing your opinion of an artist on his personality is a little silly at best. This isn't junior high school. His work has nothing to do with his personality. He cranks on about his better-known contemporaries the same way that a counter-culture fashionista might gripe about mainstream trends.

    He's not my favorite designer, but I won't be changing my opinion of his work unless I can handle it myself and find the quality working. I believe in letting someone's work speak for them, not some bitchy old client who hasn't spoken to him in 50 years.

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  44. Yeah, I can't read Vogue anymore either. (I'm also just flat-out uninterested in contemporary fashion period, so that probably contributes as well.) I could take one elitist article a month, but the addition of Plum Sykes was just too much. Also, their "affordable" monthly selections are not to this broke college student.

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  45. I'll pick up the March & September issues - they're the only ones worth my money! I must confess I scour them with a magnifying glass for the construction of the (very) rare piece that catches my eye. I end up using it more as a this-is-just-art-and-not-reality education for my DDs who are 8, 11, and 13.

    I'm sorry Charlie was such a snark, but his dresses are divine! I, too, would LOVE to see how they're put together!

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  46. You've totally sold me on that article - now I want to read it for myself and see if it icks me. I know that feeling of which you speak. Vogue is complicated. Somehow, though, I still keep reading.

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  47. I had no idea that so many other people had that love-hate relationship with Vogue. Yay, Sisters!

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  48. I'm reading that Vogue right now, and must say that this month's articles are really not good. I thought the editor/pro b-ball player article was completely useless, and I really like articles about sports! I barely looked over the Charles James article because it looked kinda catty. I may be one of those rare people who reads articles in Vogue more than I look at the fashion spreads. I think it is because the spreads are styled in such a "high fashion" way that in my opinion, only celebrities and models will be able to a) walk in public looking like that b) have a chance affording those clothes. I know Vogue inspires many people, but for me, looking at the prices on each page mostly inspires me to turn the page!

    I only got my Vogue subscription because it was free (traded in miles for mags), but even free, I does not thrill me to see a textbook-size mag show up every month. I know it is not their focus, but as an article reader, I feel like Vogue misses the chance to write some deeper and better-researched articles. For example, when I read their portraits of government-related women, I always feel it would've been better had it been deeper, less surface and with more context. I definitely won't get a new subscription for Vogue, even for free.

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  49. Probably the majority of the luminaries of history -and in all endeavors- were known to have abysmal social skills and weren't popular with their contemporaries. Less noted were their equally horrid grooming habits. For example, not only did Da Vinci rarely change his clothes even sleeping in them, that the rare occasion in which he removed his boots resulted in removing several layers of skin. Most of the geniuses we laud today were routinely ostracized and deprecated by their colleagues. It is only with the distance of time that personal patina wears away for us to perceive them out of the context of their day. In short, as was Charles Worth, so were many others.

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  50. I agree and feel the same way about 90% of Vogue articles - I try to stick with just looking and not reading. The "real world issues" they try to tackle (i.e. growing up in a rich influencial family, but dealing with an alcoholic parent while attending and Ivy League school) are relatable to maybe 1% of the population.

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  51. Ha ha, I'm so used to thinking of sewing that I couldn't figure out why all the Vogue outrage...then I realized you guys didn't mean Vogue Patterns magazine ;)

    Incidentally, the author may not have been politic about her wealth, perhaps to the point of being callous, but I don't think saying you have money makes you elitist.

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  52. My sentiments exactly about this article in Nostalgia. I actually wrote in to Vogue about it and they published my letter in the July Issue. Title: Cheerless Charles. Exactly!

    ~Michelle

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Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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