Charles James & Orchids

Posted by Maria
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Charles James Ball Gowns, Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1948.

Charles James mania has hit fever pitch. From the dim, somber galleries of the Costume Institute radiate visions of lush velvet bodices, folds of intricate tulle, and glistening, pearly silk satin. After a string of Anglo-themed shows, Charles James is a refreshing return to the elegance of post-war America. The retrospective is an auspicious choice, as 2014 was declared the year of Radiant Orchid. But what does this audacious hue have to do with the American master of couture? Let’s dive in, shall we.

Pantone’s annual chromatic dictation, announced just ahead of each new year, is a forecast decided by the zeitgeist, a secret formula that takes into account upcoming trends to deduce a prophetic declaration of taste. This year’s selection was met with mixed reviews; one critic called the choice both “hilariously misjudged” and thirty years late –1984 was after all, the year of “Purple Rain”. In truth, the hue is not for the faint of heart. It is bold and brazen, yet somehow murky, lying somewhere between pink and purple. What’s most interesting is the name, which grounds the abstraction of the designation. Orchid the flower lends orchid the color all the cache of one of the world’s most coveted plants.

Even in the most modern sense, man’s creative ingenuity is ultimately an attempt to mimic nature’s inspiration. That the layers of a gown emulate the petals of a flower may be an obviously metaphor, but it is a useful one. The relationship between fashion and flora is explicit and robust. Twenty years ago, Richard Martin and a young Harold Koda took on this rampant stimulus of fashion in a small but cleverly devised exhibition titled Bloom. As stated in the catalogue, “Lush and sensual, the flowers of grand dresses are no merely their surface decoration but their essential metaphor.”

Many of the fashion’s most prolific designers have selected signature flowers. The camellia is as emblematic of the house of Chanel as the quilted bag or tweed suit. Christian Dior, who inherited a fanatical love of gardening from his mother, based his spring 1954 collection on Lily of the Valley, or Manuet, then adopted the flower as the permanent symbol for the house. Paul Poiret chose the rose, which he incorporated right onto his clothing labels. So illustrious is this band of designers that one might suppose the assignment of a signature flower a forecast for success. American designer Charles James was similarly drawn to the intoxicating allure of the blossom. As noted by Martin and Koda, orchids inspired the sculptural forms and exotic palettes of his gowns. It speaks volume that of all the charms of the garden, James was most drawn to the mysterious and uncanny beauty of the orchid.


(L) Christian Dior Spring collection basd on Lily of the Valley or Le Muguet, 1954.


Flowers are an exceptional amalgamation of innocence and sophistication, a literal and figurative representation for layered femininity. Each bloom presents its own identity – the wilting ennui of the peony, the pert prettiness of the tulip, the piquant color of the poppy, the crystalized sweetness of the violet. And yet there is a prevailing sense of gentle beauty throughout world of flora, with one exception: the orchid stands apart from this list in that it eschews saccharine loveliness. Although soft to the touch, the petals are rigid, the forms sharp and unyielding, the colors anything but proper, from ghostly translucent to darkness of clotting blood. Orchids represent intrigue and mystery, rebelliousness and intricacy, a beauty that is confrontational and erudite, and a range that is stupefying; all descriptions that also serve for the spectacular designs of Charles James.

In 2001 Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan explores the ability certain flowers have developed to maintain popularity beyond the whims of fashion. Some have been more successful than others. The pink or gillyflower was the rage in Shakespeare’s era, while hyacinths enjoyed a moment of vogue during the Victorian age. A select few have evolved beyond the scope of human caprice; by regenerating and reinventing to suit the aesthetic or cultural expectations of the time these special flowers have reach a kind of immortal status wherein trends are inconsequential. Consider the orchid.

“There are flowers, and then there are flowers: flowers, I mean, around which whole cultures have sprung up, flowers with a n empire’s worth of history behind them, flowers whose form and color and scent, whose very genes carry reflections of people’s ideas and desires through time like great books. … flowers that have survived the vicissitudes of fashion to make themselves sovereign and unignorable.”

What a muse.



Man’s fascination with orchids is neither geographically nor generationally limited. Orchids comprise the biggest flowering family on earth. They grow on every continent except Antarctica, and were cultivated and collected as early as ancient China. Each bloom features a collection of fleshy petals, with one standout that differs in both shape and color from the others. The elaborate petal, often enlarged into a pouch or lip, is called the labellum. As the names suggest, these flowers offer the most flagrant suggestions of carnal anatomy found in nature. The sexual innuendoes of these graphically erotic flowers were not lost on the population Victorian England where an orchid craze gripped the nation. “Orchidelirium” was set off by the Duke of Devonshire then enthusiastically taken up by the Queen herself. Hot houses sheltered hundreds of varieties so that men and woman alike could leer at the suggestive blooms from the comfortable distance that their regimented society dictated.

James’ designs mimic orchids in form, color and texture, but it may be this overt sexuality that is the closet link of all. Judith Thurman refers to this element of his work in her recent piece for the New Yorker. “If you strip a James to its foundation what you find is sex. The true function of fashion, James said, is to arouse the mating instinct... A deceptively austere sheath, like the Coq Noir, of 1937, swaddled the figure like a mummy’s wrapping, but James bunched the excess silk at the back, forming an obscenely gorgeous labial bustle.” His dresses are singular and anthropomorphized, in the same way a single orchid can stand alone and still produce awe. It is no wonder that James was so gripped by orchidelirium himself, as he needed a flower that would stand up to his notions of complex, magnetic femininity.

Fashion’s fascination with orchids is certainly not limited to Charles James. Irving Penn shot a spectacularly lurid spread for Vogue in December 1970. Bill Blass and Mary McFadden were avid collectors. Calvin Klein has continually referred to the flower to further his minimalist aesthetic. Halston, a lifelong admirer of James, famously filled his studio with masses of white orchids, the “embodiment of Halston’s sensibilities: purity of design, elegant simplicity, Asian exoticism crossed with an almost rugged naturalism.” (Susan Orlean, Vogue 1998). And of course, Tom Ford’s turned to the only flower that could carry his brazen brand of sexuality when naming his signature scent – the elusive Black Orchid. On his way into the Met Gala last week, Mr. Ford stopped by and had a chat with Andre Leon Talley. When asked about James’ stately constructions, he stated that while he finds them incredibly beautiful although not “particularly sexy”. We wonder if, after further inspection, he may have changed his mind.


(L) Charles James with Model, Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1948. (R) Charles James Butterfly Gown, Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1954.


(L) Clover Dress, 1958.



(R) 1948.



(L) 1939. (M) 1947. (R) 1941.


(L) Lisa Fonssagrives in a Charles James gown,1948. (R) 1951.


(L) 1946. (M) 1948. (R) 1952.


(M) 1954. (R) 1955.


(L) Muslin, 1946. (R) La Sirène, 1939. (R) 1947.


(L) Selena Gomez in Diane Von Furstenberg. (R) Rashida Jones in Tory Burch. (L) Olivia Munn in DVF. All at 2014 Met Gala.


(L) Reese Witherspoon in Stella McCartney. (M) Emma Stone in Thakoon. (R) Stephanie Seymour in Vintage Balenciaga. All 2014 Met Gala.



Photos by Irving Penn, Vogue, December 1970.






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