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31st May 2018

The photograph, entitled Charles James Ball Gowns, was taken in 1948 – an era when celebrities were expected to dress in ball gowns, long white gloves and other fashion equivalents that defined the glitz and glamour of this particular moment in time. The photograph was originally taken for Vogue magazine, and was shot inside the elegant French & Co. art gallery in New York. Depicting ladies wearing ball gowns made exclusively by Charles James, the models are seen by art critics as being secondary to the original dresses themselves.

Charles James was a British-born fashion designer who became world-famous from his base in New York. Known as ‘America’s first couturier’, he made a name for himself for his lavish floor-length, structured ball gowns, such as those pictured in this image. James saw his creations primarily as works of art and refused to be swayed by the fashion world’s seasonal trends in his new dresses. He is said to have heavily influenced many of the next generation of fashion designers, including Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Capturing this moment of fashion history for Vogue was another British-born creative – Sir Cecil Beaton. Born in London, Beaton worked in the timber and cement industries before making a go of his true passion: photography. From the 1920s onwards, he started working for Vogue magazine editions everywhere from London and Paris to New York. He went on to become famous for capturing 20th century society through his images and took portraits of everyone from Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich, to Salvador Dali, Orson Wells and Mick Jagger. In 1937, he became the official photographer of the British royal family, and in 1972 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

As the worlds of fashion, art and photography collide in this iconic image, the feelings of glamour and sophistication in New York society during the 1940s makes its way into THE BAR at The Athenaeum too. The British roots and transatlantic influences of both Charles James and Sir Cecil Beaton are bound up in this photograph. It’s found a kindred spirit and the perfect home in the Art Deco surroundings of The Athenaeum. If that’s not worth raising a glass to, we’re not sure what is.

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