When the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute opens “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” on May 8, the exhibition will have 70 outfits, making it the largest show devoted to the designer, who died in 1978 at age 72. Among them are the Taxi dress, designed in 1929, which wrapped around the body and fastened with Bakelite clasps, so that a woman could slip into it while in the back of a taxi, and the Clover Leaf dress of 1952, which did not touch the floor but undulated while the woman walked.
There is also a black silk bias-cut dress designed 20 years before that, with short kimono sleeves, a deep V-back and two black silk streamers that fluttered in the back, at the waist, as the breeze blew.
That was the dress that I wore on the night of June 20, 1975, nearly 40 years ago. That night, I was Charles James’s walker.
I went with the designer, as his date, to the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse for the opening of “Charles James,” an exhibit of 215 of Charles’s drawings of his designs (and 50 by Antonio Lopez, the fashion artist, and his collaborator, Juan Ramos), along with one of Charles’s famous curvaceous Butterfly sofas that resembled a woman’s buttocks, first designed in 1950 for Dominique de Menil. Other clients included Lily Pons and Gypsy Rose Lee, Babe Paley and Millicent Rogers, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Jeanne Bultman, the wife of the artist Fritz Bultman.
Jerry Hall was in the caravan that drove to Syracuse that night with Mr. Lopez; Mr. Ramos; Homer Layne, Charles’s assistant and pattern maker; Sputnik, the designer’s beagle; and me.
By day, I was the editor of Art Direction magazine; by night, I was a fashionista. I haunted vintage shops like Harriet Love, and dressed up at midnight to go to Max’s Kansas City, with feathers woven in my hair. I had wanted to publish Juan and Antonio’s work, and told them I wanted to write about fashion. They introduced me to Charles, who wanted a writer to help him do his autobiography.
I first met him at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, in his bedroom/studio, Room 624. He was not an intimidating man. He stood 5 feet 6 inches, just an inch taller than me. His hair was a gleaming black, and his dark eyebrows were bushy, his eyes friendly and highly intelligent. He spoke with an English accent. The room had a mysterious scent, unidentifiable and slightly medicinal. Charles made his own perfumes, often using civet and ambergris. He also burned fragrances from Floris, the English company.
Sometimes we would go to the workroom, down the hall in 618, which was filled with dress forms, a sewing machine and a cutting table placed over a bed. That was where Mr. Layne, then in his 30s, made patterns, from 1970 until Charles James’s death. “I did the cutting and sewing,” said Mr. Layne (now retired after a long career working for the designers Tom and Linda Platt), adding with a laugh, “When he sold something, he’d give me $500, and then he’d borrow back about half of that.”
But Charles was generous in other ways. “One time, we were shopping at Sy Syms, and he saw this coat — a camel-color wool coat, a winter coat with a tie belt — and he bought it for me,” said Mr. Layne, who also walked Sputnik, drove Charles around the city and made their meager lunch of boiled rice sealed in a plastic bag, then adding vegetables to it.
“He didn’t care about food,” Mr. Layne said. Twice a week, they would go to a nearby restaurant he remembered as the Wild Mushroom, where Charles would eat a burger, and Mr. Layne the sautéed chicken livers and onions. But on those days, when they had so little money that boiled rice would be all that they could afford, I would excuse myself, and go home.
(In 2013, Mr. Layne sold a collection of more than 100 items of the designer’s clothing, accessories and ephemera to the Met, for a sum neither would disclose.)
It was not always easy to be a friend of Charles, and Mr. Layne survived — with a submissive grace — the designer’s mercurial personality.
One such feud involved Halston: In 1975, Charles wrote an article for Metropolis magazine, accusing the younger designer, whom he had known since 1958 and who had hired him to help re-engineer some clothing, of plagiarism after Halston didn’t include Charles’s name on the label. When Charles wasn’t attacking Halston in print, he would attack him verbally, to me. He would call Halston “that thief, that copycat.”
He also accused Diana Vreeland, the longtime editor of Vogue and then a special consultant to the Costume Institute, of purposefully ignoring him. “If he thought you had crossed him, you were off his list,” Mr. Layne said. “He felt that Diana Vreeland was in a conspiracy to keep his work out of the magazine.” ( His clothes had not appeared in Vogue since 1957.) He wanted me to write an article that would be critical of Ms. Vreeland, but I wanted to concentrate on his talent, not these furies.
I was sometimes at the studio at night, when Antonio was drawing a model, maybe Eija Vehka Aho or Nancy North. I would ask Charles how he made the skirt flare, or shaped a bodice, and he would explain calmly and meticulously. “He was vain,” said Paul Caranicas, an artist who was Mr. Ramos’s partner from 1972 to 1995, when Mr. Ramos died. “And if you paid him attention, he wouldn’t be cranky.”
To keep Charles amiable at the Everson show, Mr. Ramos and Mr. Lopez invited me to be his companion for the evening. I was to keep him constant company, flatter him on the drawings and smile benevolently as people came up to congratulate him. I was to prevent him from mentioning either Halston or Ms. Vreeland.
I went to his workroom so he could choose a dress for me one June day, a week or two before the opening.
“Try this,” he said.
He held up a brilliant orange silk satin dress, with slender straps, a snug bodice with a décolleté neckline and a tight form-fitting skirt to just above the knees, where a white stiffened satin band, reaching to the floor, flared out. I squeezed myself in and couldn’t breathe or walk.
“The dress is fantastic,” I said. “But I can’t wear it. It’s structured. It’s formal. It’s too small. It isn’t me.”
He designed the dress in 1974 as a gift for Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas, a sculptor in Manhattan and occasional patron, finishing it a few years later. (Ms. Strong-Cuevas said that the dress was so tight on her, she broke the zipper once.)
He asked me what I liked.
“The 1920s and ’30s,” I said. “Black, preferably, bias-cut, no structure and easy to move in.”
Days later, I went to the workroom, and there was the 1932 number. It was the most beautiful and erotic dress. The fabric slithered over the body, just barely touching the skin. Air circulated between the body and the dress, so when the silk did brush against the skin, it felt like a caress. I was ecstatic. “That’s me,” I said. Charles looked pleased.
On the night of the opening, Charles went in early to inspect the show. He was not happy.
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Mr. Caranicas said, “Antonio’s drawings were framed, and Charles had a vision of how he wanted them hung, on black lacquered panels, triptychs.” One of the triptychs was in the wrong place. “Charles took it off the wall,” Mr. Caranicas said, “and started going to our hotel with it. We saw him leaving with it, and we got into the car, and Juan jumped out of the car, and persuaded him to return it, so it was hung where he wanted it.”
Charles wore a navy wool blazer and tan pants that night, Mr. Layne recalled, store-bought. “He never made anything for himself,” Mr. Layne said, except once, a swimsuit when he went to Capri, in the 1920s.
Floating in the black dress and Manolo Blahnik black silk shoes, I circulated next to Charles, and at dinner, nudged him (gently) to eat a bite or two of food. Ms. Hall, tall, lithe and bubbling with that outsize Texan charm, swanned about the museum, wearing another Charles James dress, under a glamorous white eiderdown jacket from 1938. I gaped at the jacket, and said to Charles how wildly beautiful it was. Halfway through dinner, as plates were being cleared from the table, Charles said, “I think you should wear that jacket now.” He went over to Ms. Hall, asked her for the jacket, and then held it out for me to slip on.
It was my first and last time wearing haute couture. It was a singular moment, to be clothed in pure silk, inside and out, head to toe, a white puff of a jacket over a slink of a black dress. I was in a state of bliss.
The next day, I was back to my own clothes: jeans, Indian cotton gauze top, sandals.
That summer, I met with Charles maybe once or twice at the Chelsea. In October, my phone rang.
“This is Charles James,” the English-accented voice said.
He had called to invite me to a black-tie dinner, somewhere in New York, with Juan and Antonio, the next night.
“Oh, Charles, thank you so much,” I said. “I would love to go with you, but in the last month, I have fallen in love with a wonderful man, and tomorrow night, we’re going to a Knicks game.”
There was silence at the other end.
Finally, Charles, who was once married and was the father of two children, said, in a warm voice, “I wish you happiness.”
But this was not the end of my relationship with him.
My boyfriend, Gerry Sussman, an editor at The National Lampoon, wanted to meet Charles James. Gerry loved the Knicks, but he also loved clothes. He sometimes had his sports jackets custom-made, and certainly his tuxedo.
Gerry understood Charles’s genius. But he also wondered about his hair, still jet black despite the advancing years. What kind of dye did the designer use? Was it shoe polish? No, it was a black commercial hair gel, Mr. Layne said.
Gerry was such a fan of Charles’s that I had the bright idea of commissioning my wedding dress from Charles. It was January 1977, and we were going to get married that June.
By then, the book project with Charles James was dormant. But Antonio and Juan often invited Gerry and me to go to a cocktail party for Charles. One day, I was visiting Charles in his studio at the hotel, where he was sewing pieces of Chinese jade, beautifully carved small pieces in clear, deep green, onto the waistband of a pale pink silk satin full-length skirt. The jade pieces were going to be buttons, to close the waistband.
Who’s that for? I asked.
“A young Chinese lady who has a lot of jade,” he said.
“Wait,” I said to myself. “I’m a young Chinese lady who has a lot of jade” (in the form of pendants, bracelets and rings given to me by my mother).
I raced home to Gerry.
“What if Charles were to design me a wedding dress,” I said, “using some of the family jade?”
“Sure,” Gerry said. “What do you think it would cost?”
“Twenty-five hundred?” I said. “He’s kind of penniless these days.”
“O.K.,” Gerry said. “But first ask Juan and Antonio what they think of the idea.”
I called Juan, left a message, and later that night he called back. I told him the idea, to commission a wedding dress from Charles, to be ready in six months, by June.
“Forget about it,” Juan said in his high-pitched but street-raspy voice. “We like Gerry.”
“What does that have to do with commissioning the dress?” I asked.
“Charles will never finish the dress,” Juan said.
That Charles James was such a perfectionist that he often did not finish dresses was not a myth. “He wanted to get it right,” Mr. Layne said. “Most clothing, you feel it pulling on your shoulder, and it’s not balanced properly. He put the weight on the trapezius muscle that runs across the ridge of your shoulders. That’s what carries the weight, and that’s why they felt so light.”
“If you want to marry Gerry, marry Gerry,” Juan said. “Wear anything. Just forget about the dress.”And so I did.