Fame, Fashion, Art

The Work and Life of Designer Charles James … Fashion Musts: Murses and a Shopping Buddy … Mail, Pro and Con, and a Week of Moping.

by Denis Ferrara

“IT MAY not mean anything to you, but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier of the Western world.”

That was designer Charles James, asked to identify himself to an ambulance driver, hours before James died of bronchial pneumonia at a New York hospital in 1978. Indeed those might have been his last words.

This comes from a new book, by Michele Gerber Klein, “Charles James: “Portrait of an Unreasonable Man — Fame, Fashion, Art.”

Somewhere in my mostly negligible knowledge of fashion, I’d probably read something about Charles James, but “bigger” if not necessarily more talented, creative or adventurous names were more familiar.

This book owes its existence not just to the determined interest and admiration of the author, but also to twenty hours of videotaped interviews conducted by writer R. Couri Hay, in the last year of James’ life, during the designer’s frayed but courageously elegant tenure at New York’s fabled Chelsea Hotel.

“Portrait of an Unreasonable Man” is a quite apt title, distilled in the remark of one of his fitters: “A genius, but impossible.”

His spirit of independence and uncompromising attitudes toward his own work and the women — they had to be extraordinary! — who wore his clothes is exemplified in this tale by a French journalist and model, who knew him in the 1930’s — “Dior told me he considered him the greatest talent of his generation; but impossible in every way.”

This lady was in Paris to attend a royal reception for England’s King George VI.   She asked Charles for a dress.  “When I unwrapped it, I saw it was unlined and had no petticoat.”  She wore another designer’s gown. “Charles was furious. I told him I couldn’t wear it because it was see-through.  He told me it was meant to be see-through!  Only Charles could envision someone going to a royal reception in a completely transparent dress.”

The book is full of this kind of thing. Charles James, by every account was “the first” in many a great fashion trend, but his slow, deliberate creating and a business sense without much sense, while it didn’t exactly doom him to obscurity, he is not alongside the better known pantheons of Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel or even Halston, who apparently lifted many an idea from James.

Lots of stylish dish, back-stabbing, whale-boned bitchery, tenuous professional and personal triumphs and setbacks; a cocktail party of a time and place — high life, low life, the vagaries of fashion — and fashion as “art” — from the 1920’s to the 70’s.

Perhaps some of you know this — I didn’t.  But the work of Charles James has been the subject of more one-person museum shows than that of any other fashion designer, as recently as 2014.

I admit I wouldn’t recognize a Charles James if I collided with a mannequin got up in one of his designs, but I loved this book, and could not help but admire the man’s exquisite if sometimes detrimental resistance to compromise, right to the end.

SPEAKING of fashion, I found two interesting articles in last month’s GQ.

One in which Mark Anthony Green extols the essential need for the derisively labeled “murse.” This a small cross body bag, when a fellow needs to carry “more than a pocket can handle but less than a backpack allows.”  I don’t have one, but I have carried, on evenings, for years, a “man clutch” and feel quite comfortable with it.  Maybe a murse is next, for the summer — or perhaps more sensibly, a reasonably compact backpack; something that won’t leave me feeling the need to visit a chiropractor.  I really don’t cotton to anything “crossing” my body.

The other piece was by Sam Schube, titled “Don’t Leave Home Without Your Shopping Buddy.”  This tells quite convincingly how fashion-challenged guys need another guy friend — a well-dressed fellow — to go shopping with them.  I’ve always wanted to have the courage to do this. I even have a smartly dressed pal picked out (Scott Gorenstein you know I mean you!)  But being so insecure, I know I’d have to kill Scott after a day of modeling outfits.  Perhaps, given his many insults to me over the years, he’d feel that sacrifice was worth it.  I’ll ask him.

I’VE seen two movies, “ Borg Vs. McEnroe” and — yes — “Rampage.”  And I’ve been binging on things good and so-good-they’re-bad on “Netflix and Amazon, and also watching with nails bitten to the core, two of my favorite spy thrillers, Showtime’s “Homeland” and TNT’s “The Americans.” (“Homeland” delivered its season finale on Sunday. And “The Americans” breathes its dark and terrible last breath later this year.)

I’ll tell all about my viewings on Wednesday.  Also, I finished that 700-page book on Edith Wharton and then — all sense escapes me sometimes — I tackled another behemoth biography on Lord Byron. Stay tuned!

MAIL:  As I expected, an interesting cross-section of reactions to the column on Barbara Bush and Liz Smith.  Some liked it very much.  Others liked it with the caveat — “despite your column’s liberal bias.” (I replied to this person that they surely did not carefully read this space, or they would see I am increasingly hard on what I observe as the mistakes of my liberal brethren. I received no response.)  Others were annoyed I’d mentioned Mrs. Bush in any way.

One person angrily referred to the column as a “stretch … you didn’t have to bring Liz Smith into it” — as if there was not a real friendship and mutual admiration between the women.

This was my favorite negative missive: “Tasteless. Which is something Mrs. Bush never was; to leverage the passing of a human life to further jackhammer liberal political views. If there should ever be a Moratorium on political hatred should it not be now? Please have some decorum or decency.”

In keeping this space alive, I — as Liz did — am always interested in connecting to the readers.  If somebody does you the favor, as I see it, to read you, and comment with praise or criticism, I feel the need to return that favor.  I replied: “I am mystified. Where did I ‘jackhammer’ liberal views — the fact of her genuine friendship with Liz Smith? The fact that she — Mrs. Bush — was so impressed by Miss Smith’s literacy program that she used the basics of it for herself?  The fact that I separated Mrs. Bush from considerations about her husband and sons? (As did Liz, who actually liked both former presidents, even if she did not agree with them politically.) Or that I praised her life of service and loyalty? So, I apologize for … whatever.”

I did receive a response to this, which went:  “No thank you. I have no interest in a conversation — we have no esteem for your character. Do not attempt any further communication.”

I felt bad about this.  Now, more than ever, I have a great interest in “conversation.”

Conversation, good sense, moderation in expressing dissent, are utterly nonexistent in most of what passes for political discourse on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. All pundits and so-called anchors on all three outlets are ridiculous drama queens, vicious demagogues, intellectual midgets who love the sound of their own voices; they are destructive to the moderate center-of-the-road conservative and liberal populace they should be serving.

The only thing I want to “jackhammer” is a blessed modicum of intelligence from those who preach on high.

I am not filled with hope.

P.S.  I have also received — and with a humble appreciation — quite a few emails wondering where the hell I was last week?   Truth be told, I had major lapse into depression and lethargy.

Recent events kinda caught up with me, I think.  Although it’s been two years of working from home — scenic Hoboken — it is still a struggle.  This after 34 years in an office/apartment, with Liz Smith, Mary Jo McDonough, Diane Judge, other people and activity, lively chat on elevators, buzzed lunches at El Rio Grande, and long healthy walks to and from the Port Authority. It was, to me, a real working day.  Now I move from one room to another — or often, as I tend to stay up very late and fall asleep on the commodious couch in my “space” — move from couch to desk, a full three feet.

I still wonder at people who say they “love” working from home.  I hate it. It encourages my social anxiety, which can be extreme, ups my tendency toward depression, and exacerbates an unhealthy desire to isolate.

I got over it. (“But, she recovered …” as Judy sighed in “A Star is Born.”) Thanks for asking.  And I mean that.


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