His name draws a blank outside the fashion world. Yet, the newly renovated Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art chose to examine the career of Charles James, who is often regarded as “America’s first couturier”. Extremely passionate of his craft, Charles James pushed the envelope of dressmaking in the early 40s and 50s.
However, in 1958 it all came crashing down when Charles James went out of business. And, 20 years later he died, desolate and destitute. His label was defunct and his friends and patrons were gone. But the maverick designer left his legacy intact. The wraparound dress or taxi dress, as it was first called, was James’ creation. So easy to wear that it could be slipped on in a taxi, the dress continues to inspire.
Neither Chanel nor Dior
Charles James wasn’t the fashion world’s only maverick designer to have left just his legacy for posterity. Several others like James were recognised and revered as revolutionary, but died in penury with their labels not making it to modern day.
Elsa Schiaparelli or Shiap, as she was known to her friends, was supposed to be a mad hatter who explored her genius in her designs. Women dared to wear Schiap and endorsed her eccentric designs that were often an outcome of a collaboration with surrealist Salvador Dali.
Wallis Simpson, the famous American divorcee who was all set to marry King Edward of England, posed in one of Schiap’s creations – a lobster-print dress, for Vogue’s photographer Cecil Beaton. \
Schiap was a trendsetter, having pioneered the idea of themed collections and is credited with bringing colour to couture such as the bright shade of magenta that she dubbed ‘shocking pink’. She jazzed up the depression years and even introduced zippers to high fashion – a trend that is currently the rage. At her peak in the 20s and 30s, the House of Schiaparelli closed its doors in 1954 and Schiap retired to her home in Tunisia. In 2012, Schiaparelli was celebrated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibit “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations”, and the label was revived the following year with an haute couture collection showcased this Spring/Summer.
Of low necklines and tiny waists Along with Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath was considered a dominant figure in post-war haute couture. The French designer, is credited with infusing sexuality into his dressing with dangerously low-necklines and waif-like waists. Fitted bodices and flowing skirts were his speciality. An actor, he understood the world of glamour and infused his creations with an element of drama. He made the vamp fashionable. Fath was Parisian in his approach and many credit him with the introduction of hyper-feminity and count it as his lasting legacy.
Hubert de Givenchy was Fath’s assistant in 1945 and was crucial in Fath achieving popularity overseas in America. However, Fath’s fashion house closed down in 1957, three years after he died of leukaemia.
The house was bought over and sold many times by those who wished to revive it. But in 2006 all attempts to revive Fath’s legacy came to a stop when the company was sold again.