Charles James: Genius Deconstructed

Mrs. Philip Hummer wearing a Charles James dress (Sep-74) by Chicago Historical Society staff photographerChicago History Museum

Explore the genius of Charles James 

Step into the creativity, passion, and haunting obsession of couturier Charles James. While living in Chicago in the 1920s, James launched his career and established a loyal clientele. In the decades that followed, his dresses enchanted the fashion industry, but surviving examples of his work are so rare that his genius is not widely understood. To get inside James’s mind, Museum staff sought to uncover the secrets held by some of his most iconic pieces. We studied them. Turned them inside out. Sketched, photographed, X-rayed, and recreated them. We deconstructed James. Now, it’s your turn.

Eleanor Page and fashion designer Charles James (1974)Chicago History Museum

Brilliant, creative, difficult, and bizarre, Charles James was one of the twentieth century’s most innovative minds. Charles Wilson Brega James was born in Camberley, a town southwest of London, to Ralph Haweis and Louise Brega James. His father was an English military officer; his mother, a Chicagoan from a socially prominent family. James retained his British citizenship throughout his life. Although largely self-taught, James became a couturiers’ couturier. His clientele included Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, a remarkable testament to his talent. Unfortunately, James’s artistic expression often overpowered his ability to navigate the business side of fashion. He died, impoverished and embittered, in 1978. Yet, as Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr. once said of him, “So we must forgive geniuses their transgressions. Remember them only by the beauty and inspiration they give us, their legacy to us.”  

Mme. de Launay hats (1928) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

In 1926, at age nineteen, James started his fashion career as a milliner, or hat maker, in Chicago. His daring designs quickly gained attention both locally and in New York. Although James remained in hat making for only a few years, the skills he acquired as a milliner stayed with him throughout his career.

Mme. de Launay hat, Charles James, c. 1928, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Less than five hats are known to exist from early in James’s career, including these two dated from around 1928. Although widely attributed to James, there is a mystery surrounding their history: both contain handwritten labels featuring the name “Mme. de Launay.”

Mme. de Launay hat, Charles James, c. 1928, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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In the first few years of his business, James was known to have worked with a milliner and friend of the same name, but if James owned the business beginning in 1926, why is her name handwritten on the labels? As with many of the fine details of James’s history, elements of this time in his life remain uncertain.

“Clover” evening dress (1950) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

James designed this cocktail-length dress in 1950. Four years later, he created a floor-length version for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr. Although most fashion historians consider Mrs. Hearst’s gown to be James’s first four-leaf-clover skirt, this dress is similarly constructed, suggesting that James worked with the concept for years prior to creating the more famous version.

“Clover” evening dress, Charles James, 1950, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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During a visit to the Museum in 1974, James noted that this dress was originally created for Marjorie Merriweather Post. A review of the interior shows numerous alterations, including a large reduction in the overall size of the torso and hips. The sleeves, which were not altered, now appear somewhat out of proportion. Additionally, the dress has heavy wear in peculiar areas—along the top of the sleeves and around the neck opening. Typically, garments show wear along the hem, underarms, or collar.

“Clover” evening dress, Charles James, 1950, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Evening dress (1934) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

In 1934, as James’s reputation as a dressmaker was growing, his mother arranged for a showing of his collection at Marshall Field and Company. Chicago’s socialites “came to see their insouciant young friend, whose hats were thought clever but whose dresses were another thing,” wrote Elizabeth Ann Coleman. James recalled it as “the biggest success I really ever had,” an unsurprising sentiment considering the value he placed on the public presentation of his work. His notes state that he created this garment, a version of a 1931 design, for the Field’s event

Evening dress, Charles James, 1934, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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In the early 1930s, James favored a specific type of cut, which he used in this evening dress. He referred to the cut as the Taxi, claiming it allowed his clients to look good during any activity—even getting in and out of a taxi.

Evening dress, Charles James, 1934, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“La Sirène” evening dress (1941) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

James launched this mermaid-like gown early in his career and created several versions of it over a period of twenty years. The name refers to sea creatures of Greek mythology who used their enchanting voices to lure sailors to their deaths. The soft folds cascading around the wearer’s hips beautifully highlighted her silhouette, seducing any suitor.

“La Sirène” evening dress, Charles James, 1941, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“La Sirène” evening dress, Charles James, 1941, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Computerized tomography (CT) of La Sirène evening dressChicago History Museum

James used a series of hand-stitched horizontal pleats down the front and sleeves of La Sirène. This CT scan of the bodice reveals the intricacy of his work. The drapery created by the pleats also allowed for slight variations in the width of the wearer’s hips.

Computerized tomography (CT) of La Sirène evening dress, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Computerized tomography (CT) of La Sirène evening dress, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Empress Josephine Sweatshirt” cocktail dress (1953) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

Although this ensemble looks like a high-waisted skirt and satin blouse, it is actually a one-piece dress with a center back zipper. If James had not joined the blouse to the skirt, the wearer would have had to continually adjust the fit. He solved this difficulty by creating a two-layered top: the inner layer is cut tight to the body and joined to the skirt, while the outer layer is allowed to blouse but held in place by the waist seam.

“Empress Josephine Sweatshirt” cocktail dress, Charles James, 1953, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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James first designed this ready-to-wear dress for limited commercial production by Samuel Winston. The number of copies made is unknown, but at least one additional version (in murky brown and black wool) exists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. James named it for the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, who lived in an era when the waist of a fashionable woman’s ensemble was located directly under her bust. This style, often called an Empire waist, remains popular today.

“Empress Josephine Sweatshirt” cocktail dress, Charles James, 1953, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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While many garments in this exhibition were altered to allow for a growing figure, all of Mrs. Newman’s pieces were taken in. The alterations to the hem of this dress created more of an hourglass silhouette than James had intended.

“Infanta” evening dress (1952) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

James covered this dress with tiny jet bugle beads from its sweetheart neckline to its low hip. He created the voluminous skirt with numerous layers of colorful tulle, ranging from black to orange, yellow, and pink. The interior layers were barely visible when the wearer stood still but flashed brightly when she moved. The design was intentionally flirtatious: these layers were technically petticoats, or underclothes, and not often visible in the 1950s.

“Infanta” evening dress, Charles James, 1952, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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The name of this dress, “Infanta” or sometimes “Williamsburg,” refers to skirts worn at two different times in history. Infanta was a title used by royal women in the seventeenth-century Spanish court, whose wide skirts are captured in paintings by Velazquez. Williamsburg refers to the eighteenth century in the United States, when Colonial women wore panniers under their skirts to widen their hips.

“Infanta” evening dress, Charles James, 1952, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Pouff” evening dress (1952) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

James’s Pouff was considered daring for its time, as its materials—silk satin, silk velvet, and silk taffeta—were not typically combined in one garment. When viewed from above, the skirt presents an infinity symbol. James held the undulating shape in place with precisely placed rows of folded, stiffened crinoline and supported it with a multilayered petticoat.

“Pouff” evening dress, Charles James, 1952, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Chicagoan Mrs. Byron Harvey Jr. The others belonged to Mrs. Jean de Menil, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr.

“Pouff” evening dress, Charles James, 1952, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Petal” evening dress (1951) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

James designed the Petal for New Yorker Millicent Rogers in 1949. Two years later, the design appeared in Vogue, when it was photographed by Horst and included in James’s Black and White collection. James described the dress as a “curving stem of black velvet above petals of black satin, above 25 yards of blowing, billowing white taffeta.” He revived the design in 1958, as a ready-to-wear dress for the junior market.

“Petal” evening dress, Charles James, 1951, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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If James were not so clever, the Petal’s twenty-five yards of material would have created an undesirable bulk at the waist. He solved this by stitching most of the material to petal-shaped hip panels and only one layer to the waist seam. The skirt’s tremendous weight has caused extensive damage to its interior construction. Nearly 120 hours of conservation were necessary to stabilize it for display.

“Petal” evening dress, Charles James, 1951, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Lifelong Chicagoan Mrs. Byron S. Harvey Jr., née Kathleen Whitcomb (1909–73), regularly appeared on the city’s best dressed list. She donated three James garments to the Museum, but photographs suggest she owned at least five. Mrs. Harvey was both a client of James’s and his friend. The Harveys hosted a wedding reception for the newly married Charles and Nancy James in July 1954. The following October, Mrs. Harvey wore her Petal gown to the Consular Ball at Chicago’s Conrad Hilton Hotel.

“Swan” ball gown (1954) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

By far the most complex design in this exhibition, the Swan is made of more than thirty layers and nearly one hundred pattern pieces. Although James usually focused on one or two concepts per design, this dress suggests he was exploring combinations of influences and approaches. In it James expertly blended his own techniques with those popular in the past, such as “tie-back” supports, a type of bustle popular in the 1870s and 1880s.

“Swan” ball gown, Charles James, 1954, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Swan” ball gown, Charles James, 1954, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Swan” ball gown, Charles James, 1954, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Initially designed in black silk chiffon and tulle, this gown became James’s most popular custom order. Vogue featured the garment in 1951. James’s wife, Nancy, wore it in the mid-1950s, and he created at least one version with a cocktail-length skirt. Ironically, the Swan’s ingenious construction may also be its demise: a garment this complex presents many challenges for long-term preservation.

“Pagoda” tunic suit (1955) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

In James’s ranking of his top four creations, the Pagoda came in at number four for its emphasis on the “fine art of tailoring.” Originally designed in 1954, Harper’s Bazaar featured the garment in July 1955, the same year it was purchased by Mrs. Newman. Alterations to the side seams show that the circumference of the skirt was taken in for a tighter fit.

“Pagoda” tunic suit (1955) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

“Pagoda” tunic suit, Charles James, 1955, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Pagoda” tunic suit, Charles James, 1955, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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James considered the need for alterations when designing ready-to-wear pieces. The seams are both decorative and functional, allowing the wearer to easily obtain a custom fit.

“Gothic” sheath (1955) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

Although James created numerous designs for the ready-to-wear market, a closer inspection of this dress presents some clues as to why his contracts often failed. The pattern pieces are cut in a way that creates a lot of extra, unusable material. Typically, patterns for mass-produced garments are tweaked to create the least amount of waste, but James was often unwilling to alter his designs to meet others’ budgets.

“Gothic” sheath, Charles James, 1955, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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This sheath was made by one of James’s numerous business enterprises, Charles James Manufacturers Company, which lasted from 1955 to 1958. Lord & Taylor used the garment in advertisements in the New York Times in 1956, and Harper’s Bazaar featured an orange version said to have been designed for the American Rayon Institute. Visible alterations on the skirt of this garment indicate it was shortened.

“Gothic” sheath, Charles James, 1955, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Mrs. Howard Linn, née Lucy McCormick Blair (1886–1978). Mrs. Linn’s position as a tastemaker was undisputed. In 1961 a journalist observed: “Seven decades is a long time to be feminine and exciting and gay, to be best-dressed, to have the figure of a young girl, to be, in the French fashion, an intriguing woman, timeless and vital.” Although Mrs. Linn was a client of James’s beginning in the 1930s, her garments here date from the 1950s.

“Tree” evening dress (1957) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

James created his first Tree gown in 1955; this version followed two years later. He stated that the design used “faille stretched like a ruched membrane over a stiffened shell molded NOT to the figure of the client, but to the shape I wished it were.” He executed numerous versions of this dress in various colors between 1955 and 1958. Its wearers included Gypsy Rose Lee and Mrs. Cornelia Vanderbilt Whitney.

“Tree” evening dress (1957) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

Although the gathered exterior of this dress looks like the bark of a tree, its name allegedly comes from a Mrs. Tree, one of the clients who ordered it.

“Tree” evening dress, Charles James, 1957, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Tree” evening dress, Charles James, 1957, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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“Tree” evening dress (1957) by Charles JamesChicago History Museum

Computerized tomography (CT) of Tree evening dress (partial view)Chicago History Museum

Padded and quilted eiderdown jacket by Antonio LopezChicago History Museum

An Engineered Legacy

One of the most important figures in the preservation of James’s legacy was illustrator Antonio Lopez. The two met in 1964, when Lopez’s career was taking off and James was slipping into obscurity. In Lopez, James recognized the ability to preserve his vision of the masterpieces of his career. The two often worked at night at James’s home in New York’s Chelsea Hotel. As clients or friends modeled his designs, James guided Lopez’s work, pointing out important details to capture. They collaborated for more than a decade, creating hundreds of illustrations that James donated to museums around the world, including this one. The Chicago History Museum’s collection includes 106 drawings by Lopez. 

ICHi-062858Chicago History Museum

Antonio Lopez (1943–87)

Antonio Lopez was born in Puerto Rico and moved with his family to New York City around 1950. His parents supported his artistic talent: he attended the High School of Art and Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Lopez eventually left school to work at Women’s Wear Daily and later the New York Times. By the late 1970s, his illustrations dominated fashion. Through his work he helped launch the careers of Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall. Lopez died in 1987 of Kaposi’s sarcoma as a complication of AIDS.

Wrap overcoat with dolman sleeves, Antonio Lopez, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Dress with dolman sleeves and straight skirt, Antonio Lopez, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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Evening dress with shoulder straps and cinched waist, Antonio Lopez, From the collection of: Chicago History Museum
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The Dresses of Designer Charles James -Vintage Bowles - VogueChicago History Museum

Credits: Story

"Charles James: Genius Deconstructed" is presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum.

Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture exhibit possible:

Petra Slinkard – Costume Curator
Robert Noia – Costume Intern
Julius L. Jones – Digital Content Manger
Emily Nordstrom – Senior Editor

The exhibition "Charles James: Genius Deconstructed" was on display at the Chicago History Museum from October 11, 2011, to April 16, 2012.

Timothy Long – Curator
Daniel Oliver – Senior Designer
Ilana Bruton – Educator
Michael Hall – Replicas and Costume Mounts Fabricator
Rob Jeffries – Replicas and Interactives Preparator
Emily H. Nordstrom – Editor
Mark Ramirez – Graphic Designer
Christiana Schmidt – Public Programs Intern

John Alderson – Senior Photographer
Dean Brobst – Preparator
Lydia Carr – Assistant Editor
Calvin Gray – Production Supervisor
Julie Katz -- Registrar
Holly Lundberg, Carol Turchan – Conservators
Meghan Smith – Collections Manager
Fredi Leaf – Conservation Volunteer
Anysa Cianni, Emma Denny, Susanne Eberle, Sanela Salkic – Curatorial Interns
Cara Varnell – Costume Conservation Consultant

Rosemary Adams – Director of Print and Multimedia Publications
Tamara Biggs – Director of Exhibitions
Kathleen Plourd – Andrew W. Mellon Director of Collections

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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