This Day’s Notable Aesthetic

There are moments when the aesthetic of a work of art, in this case, the magnificent gowns created by fashion designer, Charles James, is so perfectly scripted and showcased with that of the interpreter of the finished work, in this instance, the photography of the notoriously famed artiste, Cecil Beaton, that the result transcends the talent of both in creating something of breathtaking consequence. The original caption reads: Models in Charles James gowns in French & Company’s eighteenth century French paneled room. The Location: Manhattan, New York. The year: 1948.

Beautifully composed, wonderfully lit, one could be forgiven for thinking it a painting, so exquisitely is it rendered. Guided by uncompromising standards, both James and Beaton were highly sensitive to beauty and its artifice, so it’s doubtful that chance played any part in their endeavors.

James was known for creating three-dimensional structures that reshaped a woman’s body into an icon of femininity. Always placing ideals before practical considerations, he padded, lined, interfaced, boned and wired cloth and devised numerous construction techniques to build fanciful gowns that transformed women into visions of gracefulness and elegance. Born in comfort within Edwardian society, his paradigm of beauty drew heavily on the decorative aspect of nineteenth-century womanhood and the clothing construction of that era.

Beaton, on the other hand, was swept up with the worlds of high society, theater, and glamor and chose not only to heighten its magic and allure, but “stage” its transformation, if necessary, into the epitome of elegance, fantasy, romance and charm.

It’s significant to note that immediately following the Second World War, women’s fashion lost its practical, austere look and became increasingly feminine. The female figure was emphasized and gowns used copious amounts of fabric – unheard of in the previous decade where many commodities were rationed.

In Cecil Beaton’s Charles James evening dresses, none of the austerity and privation associated with the war is evident. Models are posed in an exquisite eighteenth-century interior. The gowns are constructed from the most luxurious and beautiful fabrics and display slight variations in design. Each model likewise exhibits a slight variation from an ‘ideal’ construction, her ‘hourglass’ body shaped according to fixed criteria of beauty, gender and fashion, typical of the new femininity in the post-war 1940s.

With the collaboration of these two artistic creators, one might conclude that nature subsided, while the aesthete and the poet entered.

Yet, these acts of creation were not always appreciated.

Critical of fashion photography’s fabrication of “the cosmetic lie that masks the intractable inequalities of birth and class and physical appearance,” the writer Susan Sontag suggested that, “by setting his subjects . . .in fanciful, luxurious decors, Beaton turns them into over explicit, unconvincing effigies”.  Beg to differ?


Charles James
Cecil Beaton
Susan Sontag




~ by eaesthete on 02/01/10.

10 Responses to “This Day’s Notable Aesthetic”

  1. I don’t think Beaton was looking for the deep(er) meaning in a photograph-I don’t look for it in his images-they are beautiful to my eye-that is where it stops. Anything concerning women in photographs can be analyzed in this way- I choose not to.

  2. A beautiful photo & beautiful dresses, in a touch-me-not sort of way. Charles James’ old Chicago studio was torn down years ago to make way for an Art Deco masterpiece by architect Andrew Rebori, but for $450, you can own a piece of Jamesiana–a 1960 drawing of a woman that’s for for sale right now over at ABE books. Not as spectacular as his dresses, but then you wouldn’t have to store the drawing in a darkened vault, either. Life’s all about compromise.

  3. LA,

    From what I’ve read, I don’t believe Beaton had anything subliminal in mind either. His entire life was devoted to the imagery of beauty and its creation. Simple as that.


    Fascinating piece of trivia on James’ old studio and the thought that a drawing is circulating around town makes this all the more enticing.

  4. One of the great iconic images of twentieth century fashion and still as fresh as it was in 1948. Apologies to Susan Sontag, but when I’m met with her kind of attitde in real life, my first reaction is to say, “Get out of the way, then, because you’re obstructing the rest of us that want to be fabulous!”

  5. Yes, I agree with John, sorry Sontag! Sometimes a pretty picture is just a pretty picture. Beaton (and James) were noted aesthetes, NOT noted scholars. They were simply capturing the spirit many had at the time; of wanting to return to a ‘simpler’ , more beautiful and less stressful time.

  6. I thought it was a painting at first and second glances, until I read the piece. The photograph is exquisite and I don’t care what the motivation is…uh, probably to sell designer dresses.

  7. Beaton often dressed his own ‘models’ in a single colour, which perhaps he learnt from James – for example the opening scenes of the films Gigi and Major Barbara.
    This picture was also Inspirational for the colours of the award-winning ‘Beaton Beauties’ fabric & wallpaper, a design featuring Beaton’s fashion sketches from the catwalk couture collections of Dior and Balenciaga in the early 1950s. See more at

    • Roger,

      That is an interesting thought. It’s well known that James had an eye for color that often resulted in unexpected combinations, like pumpkin and mauve, for example. Also, it was James’ influence that affected Dior
      who used James’ work as inspiration in his New Look collection of 1947.

  8. Beaton was also designing fashion fabrics for Zika Ascher in 1948, which we now offer as interiors fabrics and wallpapers too. These were much more floral, but he did a lot of fabric design work in the US in later life that was quite geometric. Whilst many think he wasn’t particularly ‘deep’ in his approach to his work, he was incredibly visually aware and ahead of his time in the visual aesthetic, which is perhaps why he has been so influential across so many areas of design, from photography to fashion, and beyond. You just have to look at the work of Galliano, Michael Howells and Tim Walker (to name a few!) to see where this led…

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