The first thing that strikes you is the sheer volume of fabric. Dove grey silk taffeta – and lots of it. Packed into a suitcase, this Charles James dress was a complete surprise. And a wonderful treat for my students and me!
But I’m running ahead of myself, I should backtrack and explain. A couple of weeks ago, out of the blue, I received an email from Niccola Shearman, a research student at The Courtauld. She had seen some quotes from me in an article on the current Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and wondered if I’d be interested to know that she had two James dresses.
You see, Niccola is James’ great niece, and she has inherited two precious reminders of his skill and creativity – the grey dress, which he made for her mother, Jane Smith’s 21st birthday party held at the Café de Paris in 1954, and a wedding dress. The latter is an especially intriguing piece of fashion history, originally designed by Charles Frederick Worth for James’ mother’s wedding in the 1880s, James later adapted it for his sister’s 1930s marriage, and then reworked it again, two decades later, for Niccola’s mother to wear, when she married John Shearman (one-time Deputy Director of The Courtauld).
Hearing this news was thrilling, and you can imagine our delight when Niccola arrived in my office with the grey dress, photographs of both gowns and fascinating stories about her family’s history. Born to an American mother and British father, James spent part of his life here in London. His obsessive approach to pattern cutting produced a series of extraordinary garments that were sculpted to the torso and engineered to spread out from the body in architectural folds.
Niccola’s mother’s dress bears these hallmarks. The bodice is constructed to fit like a second skin, mimicking mid-nineteenth century lines, it comes to a slight point at the centre of the waist. It has whale boning to make sure the fit is precise and that it stayed in place when worn. The sweetheart neckline is edged with self-coloured velvet ribbon, pleated to soften the line and flatter the skin with its textural contrast. The cap sleeves are pleated to make them curve out from the top of the arm to balance the overall silhouette. It is lined with palest peach-pink silk, that provides a secret complement – known only to the wearer – to the opalescent grey taffeta seen by onlookers.
And then there is the skirt. Pleated into the waistband – again an homage to the previous century – it stands out in deep folds from the fitted waist. The hem is held out by a wide band of woven horsehair that ensured the dress maintained its bell-shape swing throughout the party.
The dress therefore combines the fashionable 1950s style with its nostalgic references to Victorian femininity. And importantly, bears James’ signature in its attention to detail – it is hand stitched – his love of sculptural forms, created through clever construction techniques, and his fascination with lush silks and hidden contrasts.
It was wonderful to have the opportunity to examine the dress close up, and we are so grateful to Niccola for sharing this amazing piece of her family’s (and fashion’s) history with us.