James Galanos: American Original

By Laura McLaws Helms

“In my formative years I had a daring and a certain attitude of nerve which enabled me to do what was necessary. As you work and search for ideas you settle down and find if you are interested in body and form and harmony, that the basic ideas of fashion are just as exciting as ‘knock-em-dead.’”

Born in Philadelphia in 1924 to Greek immigrants, James Galanos was raised in southern New Jersey near his parents’ restaurant. He studied fashion design for a year at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York in 1942-43. After briefly working for Hattie Carnegie, Jimmy began selling sketches to design houses up and down Seventh Avenue. Brought to Los Angeles by a job for the textile magnate Lawrence Lesavoy that fell through, he apprenticed with the costume designer Jean Louis at Columbia Studios. With the Lesavoy’s assistance he was able to travel to Paris in 1948, where he worked as an assistant for Robert Piguet alongside Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy and Marc Bohan. Upon his return to the United States, he found employment as a designer for Davidow. Unhappy with the lack of creative control, he left after a few months. Jobless, Galanos followed the American dictum of “go west” and moved to Los Angeles.

Setting up Galanos Originals in Beverly Hills in March 1951, the 27-year-old designer combined the cut and detail of Parisian couture but as applied to an American interpretation of style. For his first trip to New York later that year, Galanos carried eight dresses in a suitcase and set them up in a hotel room lent by a friend. By 1954 he was already established as the United States’ great fashion hope, known for a timeless yet youthful elegance that would define his whole career: “I create a line with youth in mind for I know that all women like to look youthful. I do not believe in following trends, and consequently I never come out with anything radical. Detail is an essential in all of my designing.” That year he won both major fashion awards—the Coty American Fashion Critics “Winnie” Award and the Neiman-Marcus Award. Diaphanous chiffons and intricately cut fine wool all reflected his infinite skills, achieved by draping directly on the body. Jimmy worked by draping one whole half of the dress, using the actual fabric— “pinning, taping, wetting, molding—then leaving it for an assistant to create a pattern. At the same time, he sketched constantly—developing ideas while he was on the phone, in meetings. Often using bias cut soft fluid fabrics and skillful draping, his evening clothes were figure revealing yet quite modest. Also known for adventurous combinations of pattern and fabric, the pint-sized designer skillfully included traditional fabrics such as paisley and gingham in his collections. Ready-to-wear, but of such a high quality of fabric and construction that they appeared almost couture, all of Galanos’ garments were available off-the-rack. Priced far higher than rest of American RTW, his designs ranged from $200 to $3,000 in 1958; a gown made from 36 yards of chiffon cost $1,300 in 1959 and was described as one of “America’s most expensive gowns.” 

The 1950s were definitely Galanos’ decade: from opening his company in 1951, by 1956, they had expanded to such a degree that they moved to an 11,000 square foot production and showroom space—almost triple the size of their previous location. Some of the success probably rested with Grace Kelly decision to include several Galanos cocktail and evening dresses in her trousseau as she prepared to sale for Monaco and her wedding to Prince Rainier III. Jimmy also began designing costumes for Rosalind Russell in 1953; they continued to work together throughout her career. He won the Coty “Return” Award in 1956, the Cotton Fashion Award in 1958 and was inducted into Coty’s Hall of Fame in 1959. Though he was known for his classicism, there were a few periods when he pushed elements of the silhouette passed the current vogues—his wider-shoulder looks for summer 1959 were described by the NY Times as “exciting, avant garde and almost futuristic in appearance,” and the following year his dropped waistlines stunned the audience. 

Alongside his New York contemporary, Norman Norrell, Galanos showed his collections to press and buyers 4-6 weeks after those of the wholesale dress designers to protect his work from plagiarism. Due to the complicated tailoring and artful shaping of his designs, Galanos’ influence on American fashion was not based on quick copying by mass-market manufacturers but on the filtering of his profuse ideas through designers and on the wearing of his designs by wealthy, powerful women. Rigidly individual (Carrie Donovan described him as “always a man to go his own way—usually ‘upstream’ against the rest of the fashion world”), he designed and produced his collections away from the industry: “I try to be different, not just to be out of line but simply because I feel that there is a place for trying to be creative in this country where creativity is rare.”). Alongside Rudi Gernreich, Bud Kilpatrick and Fred Cole, Galanos was seen as being on the vanguard of a new California fashion; according to Holiday magazine, “All the designs, indeed all that is best in California clothes, are infused with a freedom from convention, a rare sense of putting clothes around a person rather than inserting a person into the clothes.” Galanos himself felt that California had little impact on his designs, striving to be called an “American designer.” 

The behind-the-seams perfection of his clothes all came down to a life-long obsession with construction: “Everything has been explored in shape and construction. The designer’s role today is to develop techniques and dressmaker constructions that have been lost for awhile… how even to shape a dress without darts.” The sylphlike cut of Galanos’ design from the late 1950s on was due to his house model, Pat Jones, who he fit all the clothes on. Tall, needle-thin with very narrow hips, Jones embodied Jimmy’s personal taste for women who were “shaped like snakes.” Throughout the years Galanos also designed hats to complement his clothes, which became just as coveted and copied as his gowns and suits. Rarely reflecting a nostalgic influence in his garments, he did often design lace helmets and other almost medieval headgear. As his inspiration was not taken from history or from other designers, Galanos instead took it from life—how his clients lived and wore his clothes. For this he led an active social life: “I am on the go all the time. I’m rather an extroverted person. I go out to dinner every night. I go dancing ever night. I know what’s going on around me. I see what people are wearing.”

Rather outspoken about his fashion beliefs, in 1962 Galanos wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: “WOULDN’T IT BE LOVELY if this were the year that women emerged as lovely creatures; fresh… fragile… natural and alert, cleansed of ‘CANNED GLAMOUR’?... WOULDN’T IT BE LOVELY if women were fashionable not FADDISH… TASTEFUL NOT EXTRAVAGENT… ARTISTIC NOT BIZARRE!”

His breed of elegance always had fans even during the Youthquake and hippie era of the mid-to-late 1960s. Not a fan of the miniskirt (though he did appreciate Courrèges), in 1966 Jimmy considered fashion to be “pretty messy… The problem with fashion today is that it is promoting vulgarism. The fashion magazines have been carried away. Exaggeration to a point, yes. But exaggeration to the point where you lose beauty and line, no.” Galanos’ genius lay in his ability to flow with the times without falling victim to them; he understood his customer was slightly older, very wealthy and wanted to look contemporary without being garish. His approach to Mod for S/S 1967 was to make supremely chic jersey color-blocked culottes and daisy-strewn vinyl dresses, for which he remarked: “Does one let his one standards down because the world is confused?”

Universally considered “one of the nicest people in the entire business,” Galanos was highly esteemed by associates and clients alike. The New York Times described Galanos girls as “loyal, worldly, assured and meticulously groomed. They usually have small bones and large bank accounts…”—the key adjective here being ‘loyal’ as his fans were known to collect and wear predominantly his designs. Many were formerly couture fanatics but found that the quality and fit was just as good from Galanos as it was from Balenciaga, and they didn’t even need to cross the ocean and attend multiple fittings. The convenience he provided to women who could afford it was immeasurable. Nancy Reagan, his most famous client, once remarked: "Nobody could afford to dress completely with Jimmy. I hang on to what I have." In keeping with this statement, Nancy wore a fourteen-year-old Galanos gown for her husband’s first state dinner as President, and she had previously worn his designs for her both her husband’s gubernatorial balls and both of his Presidential inaugural balls.

As he aged, his designs lost some of their youthfulness but Galanos never lost his clientele. Standing firm to his belief that quality was of the utmost importance, he commented in 1966: “The older I get the more understanding and sensible I become. I just want to design clothes with reason and feeling.” Though he had never played the part of fashion insider enthralled with the circus of fashion week, Jimmy’s designs continued to appear in Vogue and other fashion magazines until his retirement in 1998 and even took an upswing in influence during the Reagan years of the 1980s. In 1981 he said, “There is a new mood for the eighties. A lot of it has to do with the new regime in Washington. The White House is going on a glamour binge, stimulating women to come out of the doldrums. Women are ready to take on a new attitude; they want to show themselves to be beautiful and special” —and Galanos was there to help them achieve this with an array of silk and sequin evening frocks for every gala and event. He received the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. Much earlier, in 1961, Galanos told an interviewer, “Clothes don’t necessarily have to be practical, but they do have to be beautiful because then they influence women to think beautiful”; a fitting epitaph for his whole career. Following his retirement, Galanos began taking photographs; his first exhibition took place in 2006 when he was 82. He passed away in his West Hollywood home on October 30th, 2016—a month after announcing the donation of his full archive to the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University.

Personally, as a woman who is little influenced by fashion trends, I take a great amount of comfort in this quote of his from 1954: “The well-dressed woman is not one of the moment but one who has built up through the years a backlog of beautiful belongings. She is at all times aware of the new fashion but greets it knowingly, for fashion constantly changes, sometimes blindly. But a woman of elegance changes gradually and invariably for the better, becoming more beautiful through the years.”