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?