Sacrament or sacrilege? Wearing a vintage Charles James on the red carpet is a risky venture. It is not the same as wearing vintage Valentino as Anne Hathaway, Julia Roberts and the Jennifers (Garner, Lopez, etc.) have, or even vintage Balmain a la Penelope Cruz at the 2009 Oscars. It took a generous dose of chic and a healthy amount of forethought for Marisa Tomei to wear Charles James’ deep navy blue, silk satin and tulle gown. As Tomei reveled in a red carpet interview that the c.1950 evening dress from Lily et Cie in Los Angeles has been hanging in her closet and that she’s been “waiting to wear it.” Charles James is not a designer that one can just throw on with an insouciance shoulder shrug and a “What? This old thing?” attitude.
Charles James’s garments are statement pieces, known for the sculptural quality and their architectural construction. Originally worn by style setting socialites like Millicent Rogers and Babe Paley, and artists like Lee Krasner, they are considered revered works of art by museum collections and fashion historians, who spend hours concocting storage devices such as special padded hangers and engineered containers to preserve the fluidity of James’s construction. As I was not yet born during James golden era which lasted from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, I had never seen one of his designs on a live body in color before. To see a Charles James in motion was both a delight to the senses and a shock to the system for those who feel that garments of such exquisite workmanship and intelligent design that have passed the half century mark should be preserved and not promenaded.
Fashion expert Tim Gunn, reporting on the red carpet, called the gown “staggering” and “an important piece of fashion history”, statements that are enthusiastic and positive, but that is also open to interpretation. One can only imagine the frisson experienced when one is faced with a living, breathing person swathed in a verifiable masterpiece of American design when one is used to seeing such art on an inanimate mannequin or dress form. It must be akin to an ardent music fan hearing for the first time a Stradivarius violin played live.
While reaction to how Tomei looked in the gown seemed positive at the event, online blogs are mixed, with some Oscar fashion critics saying the gown was “too fussy and ball gown”. Others found the bodice “ill-fitted and lumpy” which does not seem likely given that the gown came from Lily et cie in Los Angeles and was most likely refitted to Tomei’s precise measurements. The mechanisms of a James design demand such a fit. A cross section of a Charles James dress reveals an elaborate support system underneath the froth and confection including a boned bodice, a petersham or waist tape, bust pads, hip pads, multiple horsehair petticoats, and most likely a tape and metal hoop skirt. It may not have been your favorite look of the night, but let’s not pass judgment on a frock before we know the full story. One suspects that what made the dress look just slightly less than perfect on the perfectly lovely actress was Tomei’s stance, otherwise known as her carriage, or her bearing. More than just good posture, it is an attitude that is projected through every movement and gesture from the top of the head to the tip of the toes. Though Tomei’s borrowed Van Cleef and Arpels jewels coordinated wonderfully with the gown, a 1950’s era haughtiness is the essential accessory to a Charles James creation. Tomei is both beautiful and stylish, but not even today’s runway models can pull off a James. At a reported 5 ft 4 to 5 ft 6 inches in height, with a bubbly smile and minimal looking make up on her face it was difficult, nay impossible, for her to channel the elegance of a Dovima or a Dorian Lee that is needed to make a Charles James truly flourish.