Monday, September 10, 2018

The nature of fashion

Karate class in Central Park. 12:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, September 10, 2018. The horrific heat ran down to cool on Thursday night. By Saturday the skies were overcast, the breezes getting blustery, accompanied by some light rain. Late that night the temp dropped to mid-60s. We woke up yesterday morning with a light cold rain, and 56 degrees. It was very cool. Autumn said, “on my way.”

It’s Fashion Week or thereabouts here in New York. If I sound vague it’s because I am vague about it. Oh there are shows. Today I’m attending Dennis Basso’s runway collection at Cipriani 42nd Street. I hear it's drawing a big crowd. On the whole, however, the dynamic vibe that used to fill the air because of the Fashion Week is not apparent. The excitement in the air is gone.

But then, so is a lot of business. A little more than a year ago we ran a photographer’s record of empty retail spaces on Madison Avenue between 58th and 92nd Street.  There were fifty of them. It was a phenomenon. I got some very politely worded responses telling me that showing this was really a “negative” in itself. Now masses of empty retail/store windows are all over Manhattan.

This phenomenon is not unique to New York. In another era, this would have been called a Depression. Now people tend to cite Amazon as the reason. Or the internet in general. However, whatever the actual economic explanation, one thing is certain: we’ve changed. And you’re seeing it in the fashion of the world right now. The costume is changing. Yes, there’s still a “majority” of the styles of the past half century, but more than that the message has changed.

Click to order Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art.
Fashion portends, explains and extends. It goes with the territory; it’s an important factor in history.  I’m currently reading a biography of Charles James by Michele Gerber Klein.  James was born at the beginning of the last century in England. His mother was an American heiress from Chicago, and his father was a British military man. He had the proper Upper Middleclass upbringing. He attended Harrow where he made a lifelong friend of Cecil Beaton, but did not finish. In his travels he met Elsa Schiaparelli (grandmother of the Berenson sisters, Marisa and Berry). He was artistically inclined from youth onwards. He got into the “design” business by first making hats which he first sold in Chicago (his mother’s hometown) to their ladies of society like Edith Rockefeller McCormick and other contemporary friends of his mother.

Charles’ father obviously had a problem with him, although from what Michele reports, his father clearly had a problem of his own. Charles admitted to being homosexual early in his life and saw nothing wrong with it. His father, however, had some kind of complex about it, and forbid his son to use the family name if he were going into business. Later in life Charles confided when he was at Harrow, that his father, the military man, got one of his officers to rape Charles “to make a man out of him.” Yes, that is confounding and no doubt was even moreso for the boy.

However, troubled fathers aside, the artist in the boy kept him moving. He came to America with Schiaparelli (referred to by everyone as “Schiap”) and through work and connections he came with as well as those he made along the way he finally got into business and made a name for himself.
A Cecil Beaton photograph of a young Charles James. The artist in the boy kept him moving.
When Charles James attended the opening of Studio 54 in April 1977, a photograph of him in this black hat made the New York Post. Photograph by  Anton Perich.
I’d heard of him only in passing over the years. Blair Sabol told me she’d interviewed him once – or intended to interview him. Bill Cunningham (who also started out in life as a milliner) was a close friend of Charles, and in the mid-'70s asked Blair if she’d write a piece about him. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel by then. One of these days Blair will write about the experience which was memorable although not particularly pleasant in terms of making an interview.

I’d heard his name in other conversations over the years but always with a sense of a difficult personality who never quite made it in the fashion business. Michele Gerber Klein’s biography is empathic but also gets down to details so you have no illusions about the man’s personality or the hardscrabble days often of his own making.
In 1948, the year Charles James invented his first Modess advertisement and the Brooklyn Museum staged its retrospective of the dresses he had made for Millicent Rogers, Vogue hired Cecil Beaton to take a series of photos of Charles fitting a model. Here he is on the floor (possibly with Kate Peil, who ran his work rooms) pinning the hem of one of his suits.
Antonio Lopez’ rendering of the first wrap dress. Charles had the idea for this dress in 1929 when he came to New York, where he fantasized a dress so simply sexy that it could be put on – or taken off – in the back seat of a taxi. He perfected this famous design in the early 1930s, and named it the “Taxi Dress”. The Antonio Lopez rendering of a Charles James funnel necked coat emphasizes the protective “cocoon-like” quality of Charles’ designs.
He came into life during the Edwardian Age in England. He moved to Paris in the 1920s, and into New York in the 1930s, and his monde was what we’d call Society. Those girls who would be his clients, by 20s and 30s, were the flaming youth of the age -- in aces.

Millicent Rogers was a big client. Rogers was an artist herself and saw her clothes as reflections of her creative imagination. And she had money to pursue it even in her clothes. Charles and the artist reveled in his work. However, his image that survives in reputation was that of a difficult, eccentric, often outwardly angry man whose brilliance was hindered by his natural self developed in his child self.

Reading the man’s biography, I was amazed at how well he survived his father’s personal problems laid on the son. This is not uncommon anywhere in life, but it definitely is a detriment to a child’s progress in life. What emerges nevertheless, was an important artist in cultural terms, who made (designed/ invented/ constructed) garments with a style that was and remains today alluring and beautiful – just to look at, if nothing else. Like pieces of precision engineering, the emotional sense of color, and mathematic expertise creating art. This book celebrates that. and gives you a true story about a man who in his way, despite himself, succeeded into legend.
In 1954, Charles James received a commission from Celanese Corporation of America to create coats in their materials and persuaded Mrs. Austine Hearst to model one of them for this advertisement in Vogue.
This dress was first made in blue velvet for Austine Hearst to wear into the March of Dimes Ball in 1955. And Austine supplied Charles with the Empire gowns on which the elevated bust line is based. This iteration appeared in an advertisement the American Rayon Institute published in the September 1956 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
In 2012, Robert Polidori was commissioned to photograph the de Menil archives. This image appropriately juxtaposes Dominique de Menil’s red Charles James jacket with a Rene Magritte painting in the de Menil collection. The jacket’s sleeve channels the shape of a discarded elbow pipe Charles and Dominique discovered by a street curb while out taking a walk together.
Which takes me to another "artist in the world of design and what we call Fashion with an “Capital F”: Babe Paley. Thinking about this year’s Fashion Week I’m often reminded of Mrs. Paley who, when I was a young man in New York, was the iconic fashion empress of her era (mid-20th century) in her always simple yet elegant way. The young women I knew — or “girls” in my mind — who actually knew her, always referred to her with a lingering awe in their tone of voice. Hers was an image that was frequently publicized in Women’s Wear Daily as well as society columns and the fashion magazines. She reached a wide audience who shared her sensibilities. One person who considered her an icon to admire was Aretha.

I’d seen her photos in the papers but had never seen her in the flesh until one night in November 1969. I had been volunteering in the Carter Burden City Councilmanic campaign, and on this night he’d won the office. He was also the son-in-law of Mrs. Paley, married then to her daughter Amanda Mortimer.
Babe Paley wearing Charles James, photographed in the Paley house on Kiluna, their estate in Manhasset, by John Rawlings for Vogue in the Conde Nast archive at the Metropolitan Museum.
The Burden campaign headquarters were in an old vacated supermarket on the corner of 79th Street and Second Avenue (now a thirty-story apartment house). The victory drew a big happy crowd of volunteers, supporters and friends. Standing farther back in the room, I noticed a woman slowly but carefully moving through the crowd crossing the room, and it was she. The fabled Babe. She was all in black, classic black, and carrying a black handbag that had straps for handles, and looked as if it (or life itself) was weighing her down as she moved.

Naturally I was looking to see what it was about her fashion fascinated all the girls about her “look.” She was well dressed, of course, and almost as if to say no-big-deal. And it was black. Nevertheless, I knew the girls I’ve been referring did see it. But what struck me about the woman in person, who was by then a kind of fashion legend — and one with a very nice reputation, very well liked by all who knew or met her — was her bearing.  Although it was not perceived by most that I know of, there was also a sadness, a weariness about her.

As she crossed that room through the crowd — her eye always on her path — there was a fatigue in her gait. And she was wearing what looked like a thick pale pancake make-up — the kind an actor applies before going onstage. Perhaps she’d just been interviewed on camera, but the makeup drained all radiance from this beautiful woman elegantly adorned.
Babe Paley in her St. Regis Hotel apartment, photograph by John Rawlings.
Several years ago, I was having lunch at Swifty’s with a couple, from California and their daughter and another friend. Babe Paley’s name came up in conversation. I told them the story about a friend of mine who one day back in the late 1960s was walking along Fifth Avenue by the Park pushing her toddler sons in a pram. At 64th Street and Fifth, she crossed the avenue to the east side sidewalk. As she reached the corner, she saw a very chic looking, beautifully dressed woman — all in grey — emerge from one of the buildings (820), and walk over to a waiting limousine that matched the grey of her ensemble.

My friend was awestruck by the lady’s elegance (and “perfect” taste). So she asked the woman’s doorman who the lady was as she was being driven away. “Oh, that’s Mrs. Paley,” he replied. My friend recalled thinking “I want to live there  someday.”

After I told this to my friends at table, all three women had a personal story of the first time they had seen Mrs. Paley somewhere in public. Each woman recalled not only the moment but also every detail of Babe Paley’s outfit/composition.
Fair-haired, round-eyed, and incredibly spunky Eleanor Lambert, a young woman who came to New York from her hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana, was photographed by her longtime friend and client Cecil Beaton in the 1930s when they both were starting out together.
Eleanor Lambert the Grand Duchess of Fashion publicity history, the woman who took the garment business from Seventh Avenue to the Fashion World, once told me that Babe Paley’s costume was a work of art. “If you took each piece separately and put them on hangers together, you would see the work of art.”

Thinking of that moment of Babe Paley in the Carter Burden headquarters, looking chic but very weary with life, I think of the artist in her.  She was a modern woman of her time. Today, that same woman, starting as a young woman would have had a different life, quite possibly less wearisome too. Such is the nature of fashion; the time.

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