edited by Homer Layne and Dorothea Mink. Spector Books, May 2019. 412 p. ill. ISBN 9783959052382 (pbk), $85.00.
Reviewed September 2019
Alyssa Vincent, Digital Scholarship Librarian, Northeastern Illinois University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Historian and contributor Valerie Steele notes that Charles James died in near anonymity in 1978, despite having received the first Guggenheim Fellowship awarded to a fashion designer in 1974. James’ architectural approach to fashion design and his innovations in sewing techniques were not forgotten for long, however. His first posthumous museum exhibition premiered in 1982 at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased his work in 2014.
For those who cannot time-travel to past museum exhibitions, Charles James: The Couture Secrets of Shape nearly makes up for that deficit. Edited by Homer Layne, James’ last studio assistant, and Dorothea Mink, a professor of fashion design at University of Arts, Bremen, this impressive volume acts as a kind of portable James archive and technical design manual.
The book is divided into three ambitious sections. “The Sound of Shape and Design” describes James’ studio in the Chelsea Hotel and includes James’ and Layne’s notes for a Guggenheim funded book of pattern engineering techniques that was incomplete when James died. “The Design Practice of a Fashion Genius” includes crisp images of muslin fabric on dress forms and live models demonstrating James’ techniques in silhouette draping, armhole and sleeve creation, and more advanced techniques for hip expansion and different forms of draping. Finally, “The Legacy of Charles James’ Perfect Jennie Dress Form” includes an introduction of text from a seminar James offered in the late 1960s and shows custom dress forms that he constructed, with instructions from Mink on how to create a contemporary version of this revolutionary form.
The strength of this book lies in its high-quality images. For organization’s sake, the editors added a system that they call “Compares.” When a James work is mentioned, readers can glance to the bottom of the page and see a list of all the other pages on which the work is referenced rather than flipping to the back of the book for a traditional index.
Readers hoping to a find a general introduction to James would have to search for it in these pages. While biographical information is included in the book, the focus is to highlight James’ contribution to fashion design techniques and showcase how current designers can apply his techniques to their work. The book is successful in doing so, as it pulls from archival sources – including James’ own words – and the memories of Homer Layne, who continued to work on James’ designs for a decade after his death. In her foreword, Steele likens this book to a grimoire; a more fitting description cannot be found. This book is highly recommended for libraries which support fashion design, fashion studies, and costume design programs.