Elizabeth Arden built an empire on cosmetics. A Canadian by birth, Arden (1884-1966) started by giving manicures and making creams in New York around 1905. She was determined to build a fortune, and was often motivated by competition from Helena Rubinstein.
Today, Elizabeth Arden is still a well-known name for cosmetics. Yet many may not associate her name with clothing. Arden installed a Fashion Floor to her business in the 1940s and employed some extremely important designers over the years. There were so many talented designers that worked for Arden, that it merits a special series here on my blog. This first post will talk about the beginning, and Arden’s first collaboration with Charles James.
Elizabeth Arden. Image courtesy of biography.com
Elizabeth Arden’s start in fashion was fueled by competition and anger. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hattie Carnegie was the undisputed leader of American fashion. By 1944, she had been making American clothing for over 35 years. Carnegie had a keen eye for design and the marketplace. She consistently identified young emerging talent, like Norman Norell in the 1920s, Pauline Trigère in the 1930s, and Claire McCardell in the 1940s. Carnegie was amassing a fashion empire that was worth $6,500,000 in the 1940s. In true imperial fashion, Carnegie wanted to expand. So she decided to launch a line of cosmetics. (Source: Hattie Carnegie. Life Magazine, 1945, 64.)
Hattie Carnegie’s announcement of a cosmetics line. Image courtesy of Vogue.
This infuriated cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden. Immediately after receiving the news, Arden phoned her long-time friend, Chicago-based fashion designer Charles James and screamed: If that woman can do cosmetics, then I’ll do fashion. And this was the birth of the couture branch of her cosmetic and fragrance salon, the Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor. (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. London: Virago, 2005. )
￼￼Charles James (1906-1978) was the first couturier to debut for Arden’s Fashion Floor. James was born in England to a socially prominent family that divided their time between Europe and Chicago. He began his career as a milliner in 1926, opening a small Chiacago boutique on Oak Street. Working under the name Boucheron, James began crafting beautiful hats.
Charles James at work. Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1943.
Often, James would create the hat directly on the client’s head for a perfect fit. It is this experience that shaped James’ entire career. The materials required in millinery are quite rigid to create structure. The construction of hats is architectural, which left a very strong mark on James’ clothing designs. He also liked working directly on the client’s body.
Obsessed with perfection, James viewed each of his garments and accessories as a work of art. He urged patrons to donate their gowns to museums. James himself donated several of his of dresses to museums, not only to elevate his status as a designer, but also to ease his tax burdens. This obsession with perfection led him to spend inordinate amounts of money and time in crafting garments, infuriating clients and leading to James’ own financial ruin. He was best characterized as:
an impossible genius. His personality – bitter, petulant – is the sand in the oyster bed. His clothes – as structural and mathematical as a Mobius strip – are the pearls. (Source: New York Magazine. January 12, 1976, 77.)
Charles James at work. Image courtesy of ananasmiami.com
James was extremely talented, but lacked business acumen and missed important deadlines. He had been kicked out of school as a teenager, and was extremely temperamental. He was often bankrupt due to breached contracts and late work. James was simply unable to manage his own business. He therefore jumped at the opportunity to be financed by Arden.
Elizabeth Arden was equally as petulant as James. When she phoned him in 1943 to begin the fashion floor, Arden assured James that he would be in complete control of the fashion operation. Perfect. You design them [the ateliers and showroom] and supervise their construction.
“You can have the entire second floor at 691 [Fifth Avenue]…Charlie, it’s your baby. You’re in complete charge. I won’t interfere.” (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. London: Virago, 2005.)
Yet this was a promise Arden could never keep.
￼￼Things began smoothly. James was thrilled, and began by designing an extravagant showroom and atelier, despite wartime restrictions. He borrowed money from his mother to cover initial costs for the atelier: fitting, cutting, and sewing rooms. The atelier was illustrated by Cecil Beaton, James’ childhood friend, in August 1944.
This illustration appeared in Vogue of December 1944, but by the time the magazine had gone to print, James was no longer employed by Arden. Yet the illustration still serves as an intimate glance into James’ work space.
Standing mannequins showcase beautiful dresses in the process of being made. The space appears small, but functional. Workstations have piles of fabric, irons, and other tools of the trade. It seems as if the seamstresses had been discretely ushered out of the room in the middle of the day for Beaton to complete his illustration.
Dozens of mannequins are stored on the left side shelf, probably crafted to the measurements of specific clients. The showroom was even more magnificent. Lavish decorations filled the second floor salon: a crystal chandelier, sumptuous window drapes, and a table crafted with coral legs. The showroom had three large, intricately carved bay windows. James always enjoyed the finer things in life, and knew he would attract clients who shared his tastes. The interior was also complementary to James’ beautiful, intricate designs shown in the photograph.
Interior of Second Floor Showroom & Salon. Image courtesy of Vogue.
One of the hallmarks of the contentious relationship between Arden and James was that they shared a similar philosophy of fashion. Both disliked the casual aura that sportswear was creating in America. This casual look was first introduced by California designers, and spread quickly as women entered the workforce during World War II. Women had to have clothes that were practical, easy to wear, and could be laundered at home.
Both Arden and James detested this move towards casual sportswear. They believed that women should be polished, elegant, and put together – even if it required rigid undergarments, a dressing maid, and disposable income. Simply put, they agreed that the new fashions were too simple and very sloppy. Their vision was to create a couture line of evening wear and gowns for special occasions. Arden believed James had just the panache she was looking for.
The opening of the Fashion Floor and its debut collection was presented at a Red Cross benefit at the Ritz Carlton. Arden entitled the show “One Touch of Genius”, and James showed 25 gowns. Curiously, there was not much reported about the first showing. The New York Times reported that:
The importance of good posture as a basis of both beauty and fashion was emphasized in a fashion show…The costumes were especially designed to bring out the beauty of the figure which is based on correct posture. (Source: Posture Fashions Shown. New York Times: 5 May 1944, 14.)
Arden also had models to demonstrate exercises to correct posture and increase flexibility at the event. The focus of the evening was on the total image, not on the designs of Charles James.
Arden told James to bring his designs directly to the press if he wanted attention. This resulted in several of his designs being featured in Vogue of October 1, 1944, including this pale blue silk satin gown worn by Marlena Dietrich (above). Considered a dinner sheath, this elegant gown showcases how both Arden and James believed women should be dressed for dinner and evening events. The gown is open diagonally from the shoulder to hip, and closes with self-material bows. The asymmetrical bias cut clings to Dietrich’s body, but allows for movement. The photograph attracted interest with wealthy clientele in New York, including Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Mrs. William S. Paley. The new couture salon was experiencing its first fashion success.
Arden was thrilled. So thrilled, that she began to separate James from the debut of his collections. Angered that Arden took his dresses to Chicago without him, James decided to decorate the Fifth Avenue display window like a red light district. He took a red vase, dipped it in perfume, and placed a candle inside. The result was the window display looking – and smelling – like a very different type of establishment. After seeing the display, a friend of Arden’s said:
“My dear, I didn’t know you were running a red-light house.” (Source:
The relationship was strained beyond repair from this incident. Arden promptly dismissed James in the fall of 1944. James’ continued to design clothes for New York’s wealthy socialites. While his jaunt at Elizabeth Arden was brief, it was enough to make him well known.
Now, the cosmetic’s mogul was pinned against the wall: a Fashion Floor with no designer. . .
Hope you’re looking forward to hearing about the next designer for Elizabeth Arden! Be sure to check back next week.
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