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Evening dress

  • Place of origin:

    Paris (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1938 (made)
    1939 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    James, Charles, born 1906 - died 1978 (designer)
    Cocteau, Jean, born 1889 - died 1963 (designer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Printed silk

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the designer

  • Museum number:

    T.274-1974

  • Gallery location:

    Fashion, Room 40, case CA10, shelf FIG10

The Anglo-American couturier Charles James was one of the great talents of haute couture. He created complicated, sculptural shapes through masterful cutting and seaming. The short sleeves of this dress spiral under the arm, over the shoulder, and form cross-over drapery cut in one with the bodice front. James typically worked in solid colours to showcase his skill, so his use of printed fabric here is unusual.

The textile was designed by the artist-illustrator Jean Cocteau. In 1937, Cocteau had met and fallen in love with the young actor Jean Marais. The masks in the print are portraits of Jean Marais and of Cocteau himself, celebrating their relationship.

The creative interaction between fashion design and modern art was particularly dynamic during the 1930s Surrealist movement. Artists and illustrators of the day created surreal textile prints, such as Salvador Dali's 'Tears' print for an Elsa Schiaparelli evening dress in the Museum's collection (see T.393-1974). The V&A also owns a Schiaparelli coat based on a Cocteau design. (see T.59-2005)

Physical description

Green silk evening dress, full length, with flaring skirt. It consists of a crossover bodice cut with a keyhole in front, outlined by crossed-over draping, which extends over each shoulder and round arm, forming sleeves. Printed with a Cocteau art print of meandering, doodled faces in profile.

Place of Origin

Paris (probably, made)

Date

1938 (made)
1939 (made)

Artist/maker

James, Charles, born 1906 - died 1978 (designer)
Cocteau, Jean, born 1889 - died 1963 (designer)

Materials and Techniques

Printed silk

Object history note

The dress was donated by Charles James via Cecil Beaton. As this dress was among a final group of pieces that came in too late for inclusion in the catalogue accompanying Beaton's "Fashion: An Anthology" exhibition, it was included on an addendum which was inserted separately into copies of the catalogue. In this supplement, Beaton identified the masks in the print as self-portraits of the artist Jean Cocteau and his muse, the actor Jean Marais with whom Cocteau had recently met and fallen in love.

See Elizabeth Ann Coleman, "The Genius of Charles James", cat. no 47. This is the only model of this particular design that she was able to identify at the time of publication.

The pink organdy bodice lining has been removed from the dress. There was a question as to whether this lining was original to the dress but confirmation of its authenticity lies in another Cocteau print dress at Birr in the Countess of Rosse’s collection with the same bodice lining in it. The Birr dress also is constructed the same way with a slight variation in the sleeve. The bodice lining is distinctively cut with numerous small pattern pieces to fit the bust so precisely. This precise fit over the bust probably serves as foundation for the dress.
This dress is in the Beaton collection and is noted in the anthology that it was a gift of Charles James.
Date 1938/39, Jean Marais & Jean Cocteau collaborated on the textile design (pg. 55 in Beaton anthology)
Website text states that the fabric depicts Cocteau and Marais profiles because they were lovers.

CB Seam: no attempt to line up the print at seams (fabric may have been laid out in different directions, causing the orientation of the profiles to alternate on each side , enhancing the surreal feeling.)

Jan G. Reeder, Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Taken May, 2011, Compiled September, 2011

Historical context note

This dress was one of the first weekly Curator's Choices on the Victoria & Albert Museum's Facebook page. It was posted on 25 February 2011 at 16:10pm, and proved one of the most popular Choices, receiving 146 likes from followers of the site as well as being shared by other Facebook users.

The text from the original post read:
"Daniel Milford-Cottam, Assistant Curator of Textiles & Fashion, has chosen this dress in honour of LGBT History Month in the UK.

"The woman may not have realised she was wearing a celebration of the love between two men. The masks in the print are portraits of Cocteau and his lover, the actor Jean Marais, celebrating their relationship - a wonderful textile design, not an obvious LGBT piece. I love this dress."

A follow-up comment by Daniel Milford-Cottam noted: "And of course, Charles James was mischievous and perverse enough to knowingly use this fabric as a fashionable gown for a society woman - who may well have been horrified to know she was wearing a homosexual love-letter. All in all, a very interesting dress indeed."

Descriptive line

Evening dress of printed silk, designed by Charles James, probably made in Paris, 1938.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

This object features in 'Out on Display: A selection of LGBTQ-related objects on display in the V&A', a booklet created by the V&A's LGBTQ Working Group. First developed and distributed to coincide with the 2014 Pride in London Parade, the guide was then expanded for the Queer and Now Friday Late that took place in February 2015.

Production Note

Reason For Production: Commission

Materials

Silk

Subjects depicted

Surrealism; Profiles (figures); Faces; Homosexuality; Self-portraits; Portraits; Masks

Categories

Fashion; Evening wear; Clothing; Formal wear; Gender and Sexuality; Textiles

Production Type

Haute couture

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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