Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Charles James and Fishtail Gowns

Silk ballgown from 1954

Warning this article contains Frock porn - no not like that - there's not a nipple to be seen - just stunningly gorgeous frocks for you to lust after.

There's no denying the Fishtail is the shape of this seasons red carpet, anyone who's anyone has been seen on the Golden Globe and Oscars red carpet sporting this seasons must have. But there's no master of the fishtail like fashion designer Charles James. Although he was born and raised in England, his career is American based, and he is considered to be Americas first, and only real, couturier (as in using 'couture' techniques - a very complicated definition). His career spanned the 30s, 40s and 50s as he dressed the high class society women of America in his beautiful and unique gowns. His knowledge and use of cut, shape and structure is second to none.

While Charles James is known by those with a good knowledge of fashion history, the fact he is not an international household name the way Dior and Balenciaga are for their similar gowns of the period is a little perplexing. I think there's two reasons for this. Firstly he was largely based in America in a time when fashion was still firmly ensconced in Paris fashion houses, and secondly, his label has not outlived him to be reinvented by new generations. In an age when haute couture exists largely to convince us to buy perfume and handbags, it's nice to look back at the genius of a time when couture was truely appreciated as an art form.

All the gowns featured on this page are designed by Charles James. 

Fishtail gowns are very popular. Buy they need to come with a warning. I've seen bridal articles that claim they're the new A-line, the perfect shape, that they suit everyone.

They don't.

They're very hard to carry off, especially if they are not expertly made. Not all gowns are created equal.

To combat so much fullness below the bum you need to at least appear to have curves in all the right place: big bust, small waist and slim enough bum and hips to ensure that the emphasis in that area is flattering. A good dress will give the illusion of that, even if you don't posess them naturally. If in doubt, the most important thing is to make sure the dress pulls you in and emphasises the waist, or you will look more toilet brush than sex siren. This is a design for a true hourglass figure; apples, pears, and very boyish figures should approach with caution.

'Tree' - 1955

'Tree' 1955




The fishtail itself comes in many shapes and sizes. Some are barely more than A-line, skimming the bum before sweeping out again, sometimes the fullness will come out from the knees. There are dramatic froths, gradual tulip or bell shapes, and some are basically bustles or trains with most of the fullness coming out at the back. There are also 1930s shaped fishtails which are slinky and sexy and leave little to the imagination: think Mae West. These gowns require you to think very carefully about your lingerie.

Butterfly 1954


A certain amount of height is needed for successfully carrying off a fishtail gown. Not actual tallness so much, but your body needs to be proportionately long to your build. Someone who's 5'7" can look taller in a photo if they are willowy, than a 5'11" stockier shape. The longer you look, the more dramatic and beautiful your frothy fishtail will appear.

Marlene Dietrich 1934

Lisa Fonssagrives 1948
Fishtail coat anyone?

And here's Marissa Tomei wearing one of his vintage gowns to the Oscars in 2011.

Which gets me thinking, which would I chose to wear. It would have to be the green one at the top. Which one is your favourite?

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