“Hollywood is so different now. They all have stylists, so that on the red carpet they all look like clones. The great movie stars in my day bought their own clothes. Their style came through.”
—James Galanos, American designer, 2007
Yes! Like Mr. Galanos, I lament the day that grown, intelligent woman became dependent on stylists to tell them who they are and what they should wear. Getting advice, reading about which clothes might best suit your body and your life, listening to a lecture, taking a class—all good. But believing that you’re incapable of figuring it out for yourself, paying someone big bucks to do it for you, and being afraid or unwilling to step out of the house unless they’ve done it? Weird choice. And weird world you’ve living in if you feel you have to do it.
Galanos in the Proverbial Nutshell
James Galanos has been called “The Dean of American Fashion,” and he’s still highly respected in the fashion world. He began his career in the 1940s and ended it voluntarily in 1998, disgusted at what he saw the fashion world becoming: in his view, totally focused on shock value, celebrity, and youth.
Galanos dressed the Hollywood crowd—Rosalind Russell, Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Lamour, Judy Garland, and Ali McGraw as well as singer Diana Ross, political star Nancy Reagan, and fashion editors and fashionista socialites such as Diana Vreeland, Eleanor Lambert, Eugenia Sheppard, and Virginia Pope.
And Galanos vintage gowns remain popular among jet setters, Hollywooders, and supermodels such as Celine Dion, Renée Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Alba, Heidi Klum, Tatiana Sorokko, Amber Valletta, Christina Ricci, Ashley Olsen, and Katie Holmes.
The Clothes: Beautiful and Durable
From the start of his design career in the early 1940s, Galanos created beautifully draped and durable garments, finished just as finely finished inside as out. That attention to quality earned him a reputation as one of a handful of American designers whose fine craftsmanship rivaled that of French couturiers. Besides his superior craftsmanship, Galanos made a name for the elegance, sophistication, maturity (not dowdiness), and timelessness of his designs. It’s been said that Galanos made ready-to-wear garments with the quality of haute couture.
Galanos garments have made their way into several major museum collections, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert in London, the Smithsonian, and the Kent State University Museum in Kent, Ohio (which showed 15 of its Galanos 120 pieces in a 2009 exhibition, “James Galanos: American Luxury”), and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (ooh, I love that one! Be sure to take a look at the close-up on page 2).
You can also see (and buy, if you’re on a non-thrift-store budget) a good selection of Galanos garments at First Dibs from the 1950s through the 1990s, priced from around $500 to $3500 and beyond to “price upon request.”
The Journey: From Philly to Hollywood through New Jersey, New York, and Paris
Born to Greek immigrant parents in Philly in 1924, Galanos learned to draw from watching and mimicking his papa, a restaurant owner and frustrated artist. Galanos sold his own sketches on the streets of New York when still a boy. He graduated from high school in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and studied for 8 months at the Traphagen School of Fashion in NYC, where he learned to cut patterns and drape, before becoming bored and heading off to Paris. There he worked and learned at the houses of Balenciaga, Dior, and Robert Piguet, who counted among his other students young up and comers Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Balmain, and Marc Bohan.
In the late 1940s, Galanos spent awhile in New York and then headed to Hollywood, where he established his business and worked happily, following the dictates of his intellect and imagination, unconcerned with goings on in America’s fashion capital, or anyone else’s for that matter.
The Man: Snobbish, Shy, and Brilliant
In my brief reading about him, Galanos seems like a bit (well, OK, more than a bit) of a snob. He seems to sniff a lot, for one thing (as in “he sniffed with disdain”). Here’s a quote from a People article on his relationship with Nancy Reagan: “Galanos is known as Jimmy to a few old friends, though he prefers the royal ‘we’ when referring to himself. ‘This is a snob operation and that is what we want,’ he sniffs.”
But he’s also known for his shyness and his discomfort with praise. And those who know much more about him than I do consider him a true creative genius, full of inspiration and innovation, always coming up with new ways to use forms and materials, rather than hitting on one good idea and repeating it in various permutations for the rest of their careers. So maybe I wouldn’t mind accepting an invitation to lunch at his Palm Springs villa.
And After Fashion, What?
After kicking the fashion world out of his life in 1998, Galanos became a respected photographer, using the same materials (cloth, ribbons) and the same knowledge of light, color, form, texture, and context that served him in clothing design.
Categories: Fashion Quote of the Week