I used to think that a muse was a fairy sprite that whispered in your ear, but apparently I was wrong. A muse, I see now that Fashion Week is upon us, is a skinny gorgeous woman with a pouty face who looks fabulous in clothes. That's the impression I got looking at Vanity Fair's lineup of those women who bring out the best in the designers who create clothes for them or with them in mind. A muse is ". . . someone that lights a spark and get you moving." Or the "magic that happened" with Audrey Hepburn met Hubert Givenchy. Talented designers and the women who inspire them have been special pairings in fashion history. Perhaps the greatest such relationship existed just beyond the horizon of prevailing fashion memory, that of: Millicent Rogers and Charles James. Millicent certainly fit the gorgeous, skinny, somber requirement, but she was more than the attractive mannequin who wore James's fashions. Her own taste and style often directed and invariably tweaked his designs. She pushed him to create what she wanted and the dynamic they created brought out his best.
The relationship began in 1930 when Millicent went to London with a group of friends to see a talked-about young designer named Charles James. Millicent's name became paired with his at the height of his fame when she functioned as both his patron and muse. In the quickly changing world of twenty-first century fashion, it is hard to imagine the influence that a few key and highly respected fashion designers wielded in their time. They weren't flashes in the pan for one or two seasons or just one look.
Though born in England, James would become known as the most truly American designer. In a field largely dominated by French, Italians and Russians, he uncannily understood where American style was going after World War II and proceeded to capture its essence. Nearly unknown to all but fashion industry experts and aficionados today, Charles James was considered a giant, an innovator on the tip of every fashionable woman's tongue in the forties and fifties. His sculpted ball gowns in lavish fabrics and inventive colors were his signature styles, though his coats and capes trimmed with fur and embroidery also left their mark.
It has also been noted that James was one of the oddest and most difficult personalities in the legends of fashion history. One reviewer called him "kissed by the furies." Yet Millicent tamed him with her matchless manner; soothing, demanding and yet flattering. She always got what she asked for, and their relationship was considered one of the most famous and fruitful designer-client collaborations in American fashion history. His first design for her was a nightgown, a "deshabille" of white and rose organdy trimmed with lace and biscuit colored ribbons when she was hospitalized with a bout of her recurring heart ailment. Instinctively he understood style and finery as a tonic for her morale. He created more than 45 original designs for Millicent, and her financial patronage was essential to his business success in the late 1940s.
When James died in 1978, his widow Nancy James explained, "Millicent Rogers inspired him more than anyone. He felt that she could help him to resolve a design when he wasn't certain how to finish it." James was direct in his own admiration of Millicent and wrote to her in one letter, "...when you came into my house everyone at once knew what they were to do, and how to do it. And that special quality of bringing out people's work at its best was what gave you a special rating." She was quite expert at flattery herself, extolling his work, smoothing any ruffled feathers and quickly shifting the emphasis round to getting what she wanted. Their relationship developed into a friendship beyond typical designer/client roles, though it was certainly forged with Millicent's purchasing power. Like James, she was a tireless perfectionist intent on exact tailoring, and together they wrestled with the sublime and stupefying challenge of fashion design and creation.
In her later life she commissioned him to make luxury versions of the squaw skirts she adopted in the Southwest. Their love of beauty and creation in haute couture seemed to bind them and fueled one of the all- time great muse and master relationships in fashion.