Some say it was Charles James who influenced Christian Dior’s 1947 “New Look”, James’s architectural approach looked back to the days of corsets, bustles, crinolines, and panniers, when women were literally squeezed into and burdened by a socially demanded femininity—the garment and its underpinnings defining the wearer—a continuing theme of the male couturier’s ego. Dior would follow this idea in philosophy if not in style as he set about reshaping post-war fashion in an ultra-conservative world. James would have a different legacy, dressing the richest and most esteemed women of his era, the grandest couturier of them all, lost in his dreams.
For James, making clothes was an art form, he ran his business as such, and the practical concerns of wearing clothes seemed to escape him even as tolerance for structured, body oppressing clothes faded away into the ‘60s. In his whole career James reportedly made only 200 designs, spending months and thousands of dollars to get a single sleeve just the way he wanted. He was known to be callous and impulsive, refusing to deliver a client’s gown just hours before an event if it wasn’t perfect or if he found the client undeserving. When he did try his hand at ready-to-wear he turned out to be too difficult to work with and so he was never able to build the kind of business that so many of his peers, including Dior, were able to prosper with. In a way, his lack of financial success embittered him, throughout his career he threw accusations of other designers stealing his ideas left and right, usually followed with a lawsuit, some of them not without cause. But James was never able to accept that aspect of fashion or the fact that his clothes were of a different time, and it forced him to shun so many people who might have wanted to help. He was a true genius, a mad genius, all alone in his own world.
For Thom Browne, a designer who has built his reputation in menswear by subverting a nostalgic longing for midcentury masculinity, appropriating American kitsch as a tool for branding, and for designing into his clothes his own severe and restrictive code of dress; Charles James, with his structure and layers of feminist/misogynist discourse, would be a natural point of departure for his women’s collection. The built up Arc sleeves, the barrel skirts and crinolines, and the peplumed jackets spoke the language of Charles James with a high level of fluency, accented of course by Browne’s kitschy surrealism.
It’s hard to imagine any literal reference to James’s work making sense as a modern fashion proposition instead of spectacular costume — as inspiring as his clothes still are. But maybe this is the inner mystery Thom Browne’s work. For his men’s collection shown in Paris he looked to America’s founding fathers, and for women he now looks to American couture. It’s as if Browne is foraging through the country’s sartorial history and adding its most savory moments into his own imagery and lexicon. That it is anachronistic and outlandish only heightens its appeal. A purist might consider any resemblance to Charles James in Browne’s collection purely surface, but one has to admire Browne for recognizing that America indeed has a couturier worth referencing– for rewawakening James and his dreams of grandeur in a bygone era and bringing them into a world of his own.