cover image Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man; Fame, Fashion, Art

Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man; Fame, Fashion, Art

Michèle Gerber Klein. Rizzoli Ex Libris, $37.50 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8478-6145-3

Klein, vice president of the Liberman Foundation, paints an amiable portrait of the self-taught couturier Charles James (1906–1978), tracing his life from his school days at Harrow, an exclusive prep school in London, to his final years living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Focusing on his relationships with industry insiders and socialites, such as Anne Armstrong-Jones and Dominique de Menil, both of whom served as James’s muses, Klein shows how James “set the standard for style in the Western World” for mid-20th-century haute couture. In addition to inventing the “trapeze” coat, James pioneered the “new look” of the 1950s through his custom designs combining small waists with figure-eight skirts. Klein balances an appreciation of her subject’s talents as a designer with an acknowledgement of his shortcomings as a friend and businessman who could “never stop whining about cash.” In 1943 cosmetic tycoon Elizabeth Arden offered him a professional “partnership for life” that ended badly after two years. His reputation as a whiner and malcontent caused Diana Vreeland to exclude him from her 1975 Met show American Women of Style. Determined to tell his side of the story, James spent his last years writing letters to his former friends and associates—a handful of which are excerpted here. The result is a juicy account of the influence of an often-overlooked figure in the history of fashion. Illus. [em](Mar.) [/em]