Wednesday, February 12, 2014

History's Runway: A Charles James and Jean Cocteau Evening Gown, 1938

Charles James (1906-1978) donated this printed silk gown to the V&A.  The fantastic dress of emerald silk was designed by James in 1938.  James, an Anglo-American couturier, was celebrated for his masterful creations of complicated, sculptural shapes built with meticulous cutting and seaming. 

Take for example, the short sleeves of this dress which spiral under the arm, over the shoulder, and form cross-over drapery.  This section is formed from one piece which continues to form the bodice front. 

Normally, James preferred for the shape of the gown to speak for itself and, to keep from distracting from the architectural quality of his work, opted for solid-color silks.  Therefore, the use of printed silk in this gown is unusual.  The textile is all the more special given that it was  designed by the artist-illustrator Jean Cocteau. In 1937, Cocteau had met and fallen in love with the young actor Jean Marais. The masks in the print are portraits of Jean Marais and of Cocteau himself, celebrating their relationship.

The gown is wholly emblematic of the marriage of fashion design and modern art which took place in the 1930s, rising even more so with the Surrealist Movement.  Couturiers such as Charles James and Elsa Schiaparelli worked with artists such as Cocteau and Salvador Dali to produce wearable art.

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