The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
James believed in the importance of documenting his idiosyncratic design process and techniques for future generations. As part of his legacy-building strategy, he produced muslin mock-ups marked with grain and seam lines as study tools that elucidate the particulars of their cut and construction.
The initial impetus for making these muslins was an exhibition A Decade of Design that James mounted at the Brooklyn Museum in 1948. It featured the fashions he had developed for Millicent Rogers earlier in the decade. Rogers donated the clothes along with the muslins after the show closed. James persuaded other clients to contribute their gowns with muslin replicas to Brooklyn in the ensuing years.
Evening dress, 1946
It was a James innovation to piece together contrasting fabrics such as satin, faille, and taffeta in one garment, as he has done here. Ambiguity, another signature element of his design concepts, is also a compelling feature of this sculptural form. Its construction reconfigures the body by thrusting the front forward with stiff silk faille and satin in winglike curves at the hips, leaving the softer crepe draped over the back, a reversal of the norm in which the weight of construction is placed at the back of the body.
As James sought to consolidate his legacy and to devise a curriculum around some of his most important works, he created a series of draped study pieces. These full-sewn muslins, or toiles, as such prototypes of black and white cotton muslin are also known, graphically render the complexities of his approach, and the contrasting fabrics simplify an analysis of his techniques. This intricate gown’s toile reveals the skirt’s hem as a wide contoured circle that is pulled up and folded over on itself to form the dramatic front flute.
Ball gown, 1954
James executed only two examples of this sculptural masterpiece in emerald-green satin. The art patrons Mr. and Mrs. John de Menil provided the funds for the Brooklyn Museum to purchase this version (along with the muslin displayed earlier in the exhibition), to further James’s legacy there.
The successful mounting of the free-form spiraling flounce—a wide contoured circle that is folded over on itself—was achieved through an engineer's understanding of counterbalanced forces. The elegant waistline seam, cut anatomically rather than as a straight horizontal, contributes to the elegance of line and perfection of fit that distinguishes his clothes.
This half-sewn muslin represents one of the most intricate of Charles James's designs, the "Ribbon" dress, two examples of which are in the collection. The most significant aspect of this dress is its construction: the skirt panels are 12 inches wide at the bottom and converge to a mere quarter inch at the waist.
"Ribbon" ball gown, 1946
The strapless bodice of the gown appears to conform to traditional techniques, but its innovative seaming is a James signature. Similarly, what at first seems to be a skirt of striped fabric is actually comprised of ribbons of varying colors, luster, and weight. The ribbons, wide enough to be cut in curves, torque into smooth, molded contours where they taper over the hips. In one of James’s more explicitly sexual details, the bodice comes to a point just above the pubis and generates a deep reverse pleat down the center front of the skirt.
"Clover Leaf" ball gown, 1953
While James's inspiration for this dress was likely the 1860s silhouette supported by a cage crinoline, its construction is far more complex than its precursor made of concentric steel wires connected by linen tapes. This one was built using two separate understructures of boning and stiff interfacings to give it shape and balance. The fifteen-pound skirt was engineered to rest comfortably on the hips, and, unlike the cage crinoline, to effectuate a graceful glide rather than a back-and-forth sway.
With artistic bravado, James heightened the visual drama by separating the luminosity of ivory satin and the muted reflectivity of ivory faille on the upper and lower sections with a curvaceous black velvet swath, which further defines the serpentine effect of the four-lobed skirt. As he considered himself to be a sculptor, engineer, and architect, James thought this design his greatest achievement.
The original version was made for Austine Hearst to wear to the Eisenhower Inaugural Ball in January 1953, but it was not completed in time. She was, however, able to wear it to the coronation ball in London in June. This example is a duplicate made for the donor, Eleanor Searle Whitney, soon after the original for Mrs. Hearst was completed.