Lecture on Charles James by Michele Gerber Klein

Noted author and founder of Joan Vass, USA, Michele Gerber Klein presented a wonderful lecture based on her book: Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man at Virginia Robinson Gardens on September 28, 2018.  As a special bonus for the audience, member Regina Drucker brought an original and rare Charles James blue periwinkle evening gown from 1933. It came from the collection of Marit Guinness, a beer and banking heiress, whose parents were friends of James’ parents. Marit grew up with Charles, and her mother was one of his first clients.

According to Michele, the British designer Charles James, born in 1906, was one of the 20th century’s most brilliant designers; he was the “enfant terrible” of the fashion world, with his acerbic wit, litigations, and anger at perceived slights. However, referencing the title of her book and a quote by Bernard Shaw, Michele countered that “Reasonable men accept the world as it is. It is therefore that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

James’ genius and mastery of cut and construction “earned him an enviable clientele composed of the best-dressed swans and tastemakers of his generation,” said Michele. These included Jennifer Jones, Babe Paley, Austine Hearst, and Dominique de Menil whose Philip Johnson home he re-designed and decorated. James was highly esteemed by his peers; the Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga called him “not only the greatest American couturier, but the world’s best — a creator who elevated dressmaking to a pure art form.” As the ultimate compliment, Chanel and Schiaparelli bought his clothes to wear for themselves.

A demanding perfectionist, he worked painstakingly on his designs. Not only did he craft romantic ball gowns that were “poems in cloth,” he pioneered many innovations. Among them were the first zipper dress, the down or puffer jacket, fake fur, the first wrap dress in 1929 (and acknowledged by Diana Vreeland). He also invented a sports bra for one of his clients, an heiress and avid golfer.

In 2014, Charles James was the subject of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was curated by Harold Koda. The latter wrote the foreword to Michele’s book who dedicated each chapter to one of his important muses. Among them were Elsa Schiaparelli, Anne, Countess of Ross, Millicent Rogers, Elizabeth Arden, and his wife. The famous photographer Cecil Beaton took many pictures of James’ work that are illustrated in the book.

James died in 1978 in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel. His life was populated by a Who’s Who of captivating and glamorous figures. Michele concluded her lecture to much applause and appreciative comments: “Wonderful!” “Delightful!” and “Michele captured his essence beautifully!”

After the lecture, the guests sat at stunning tables designed by Education co-chair Adrienne Horwitch, with the help of Andrey Yun. Centerpieces of wire mannequins draped with organza ball gowns in pastel colors decorated the tables. Wreaths of flowers and leaves encircling the mannequins completed the shimmering tableaux — so fitting with the glamorous theme of the lecture.

Michele signed her book as the guests feasted on Joe Monteferante’s delicious menu of green goddess salad, spinach and cheese souffles, citrus salmon with beets, chicken with corn salsa, and the most scrumptious chocolate silk tart. The Friends are so grateful to our wonderful Education co-chairs Adrienne Horwitch and Cindy Fields for organizing such a delightful and memorable day for us to enjoy!

Post by Linda Meadows 

Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member

Photos by Dana Reston and Diane Jenkins

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