The late Anglo-American fashion designer Charles James has been described in many ways—artist, geometrician, a genius, and irascible. “He would spit if you called him a fashion designer,” says Timothy Long, Curator of Costumes for the Chicago History Museum (CHM). Charles James is widely regarded as the only American designer to have worked in the pure tradition of haute couture and was described as the greatest couturier of his time by the elite Parisian design world.
“Charles James: Genius Deconstructed,” an exhibition of 17 of James’ most iconic designs from 1928–1958 will be on display at the CHM from October 22, 2011–April 16, 2012. The CHM boasts the second largest collection of James pieces in the world among its 50,000-piece costume collection. The exhibit will also feature many Antonio Lopez sketches of the designer’s works, some as large as 3 x 5 feet. James commissioned Lopez to capture and preserve particular aesthetics of his dresses four years before his death in 1978.
“Genius Deconstructed” promises to be a highly original exhibit. Long and his team at the CHM have remade three of James’ most renowned designs—exposing them, layer by layer by layer, in an attempt to reveal James’ internal world of scientific precision and construction. “The challenge has been how to explain his genius to the public,” says Long.
Born in 1906 in Sandhurst, England, to an English military officer and an American mother from a socially prominent Chicago family, James briefly attended the University of Bordeaux in France, before being sent to Chicago by his family in 1926. At age 19, he launched his career as a milliner, opening a shop at 1209 North State Street under the name Charles Boucheron, a schoolmate’s “borrowed” surname. He would open two more shops in Chicago before moving to New York in 1928, where he established another store.
“Possessing an incredibly sharp mind and entirely self-taught, James could have excelled in any number of fields,” says Long. “Yet his early experiences in millinery would eventually lead to a talent for devising intellectually refined garments, which employed hat-making techniques to achieve their sculptural forms.”
James divided his time between Paris, London, and New York from 1930 to the mid-1940s, and spent the last two decades of his life primarily in New York. His clientele included Millicent Rogers, Coco Chanel, and Diana Vreeland. According to Long, his designs are so timeless that his 1932 culottes for New York department store Lord & Taylor were still being sold in the ’50s. New York became James’ base from 1940 to 1947, and during part of that period, he designed clothes for Elizabeth Arden. He showed one of his most successful collections in Paris in 1947.
James is most famous for his sculpted ball gowns made in lavish fabrics and to exacting tailoring standards, but is also remembered for his capes and coats, often trimmed with fur and embroidery, his spiral zipped dresses, and his white satin quilted jackets. James looked upon his dresses as works of art, and had a devout and loyal following who felt the same.
But at the cost of a 1950s Rolls-Royce, and with his nonconformist vision of fashion and at times physically demanding fitting process, his clothes were not for the discreet woman.
“Instead, he attracted a courageous, strong-willed, adventurous, and often patient client base that could deal with the designer’s erratic temperament and unconventional business methods,” says Long. His distinguished clientele were the legendary tastemakers of their day and included Mrs. Randolph Hearst Jr., the Marchesa Luisa Casati, Babe Paley, and even Coco Chanel in the early part of her career.
“For most of the affluent women who could afford his creations, the allure of a signature James piece lay in its rarity,” says Long. “To appear at a function in a Charles James creation was often equated with owning an original work of art because of the difficulty and cost associated with acquiring it.” For his clients, there was no such thing as wearing a new or old James to an event, because his timeless pieces often transcended the vagaries of fashion. To be dressed by James marked a woman as one of adventuresome taste and financial security.
“James’ ball gowns are delicate, romantic, and even whimsical at first glance,” explains Long. “Yet, beneath layers of taffeta and organza was an armature of underpinnings that included boning and horsehair canvas. These intricate layers of construction transformed his dresses into sculptural objects that assumed a life of their own; thus able to stand upright after the wearer had stepped out of them.”
Charles James is considered a genius due to his ability to craft a garment with the intuition of an artist and the technical skill of an engineer, taking into account weight distribution and elements of proportion, line, color, and texture. With so few of his dresses in existence, and many one-of-a-kind, no one dared “rip open the seams” of a James dress to really understand his intricate use of unconventional materials and techniques.
“We have spent two years climbing inside the garments,” explains Long. “We’ve taken meticulous measurements, and identified the unique materials and special construction techniques employed only by James.” James was a pioneer in his use of new materials, such as plastic, in the late ’30s and ’40s. He molded and melted plastic to create shapes, supports, and structures to design signature style lines that simply hadn’t existed prior to that. He used geometry to see how garments could fit a woman’s body better.
Imagine an evening gown weighing 17 pounds and made with enough fabric to fill a football field. Mrs. Byron Harvey wore James’ coveted “Swan” design. The dress is made of fabrics and materials including silk crepe and silk tulle on the outside, and everything from canvas to horsehair, buckram, satin, and taffeta on the inside.
Primarily deep merlot and brown, James incorporated gold, yellow, peach, salmon, and purple within. “It was important to James for people to catch a little glimpse of the woman’s underthings,” says Long. “He wanted her to flirt with her dress, to convey her sense of femininity.”
One of the exhibit’s deconstructed designs is the “Tree” Evening Dress, made in 1955 for Mrs. Ronald Tree (Marietta Peabody Tree). The American socialite and political supporter had a passionate and intense affair with the late director John Huston before marrying Ronald Tree, grandson to retail magnate Marshall Field.
In colors of rose pink silk taffeta, white silk satin, and red, pink, and white tulle, the bodice was mounted on a boned foundation, the skirt supported by net and cotton webbing underskirts, fastened with two zips, mainly hand-sewn with some machine-stitching.
“Made of 14 layers with over 25 pattern pieces, the garment is constructed to create an extension to the female form. By molding an inner bodice over his client’s exact silhouette, James was able to transform the wearer’s body into his idealized form,” explains Long. “Although this garment weighs 15 pounds, the construction utilizes weight distribution techniques along with the ease of bias cut fabric, which had many of his clients claiming the garment was ‘weightless.’”
It took 25 interns working on what James called the “flying buttress” or bustle, within the Tree Dress to deconstruct that layer’s own nine layers—James often used architectural terms to describe parts of his garments. Long traveled to New York to meet one-on-one with pattern grafters and others who had worked directly with James.
To showcase the exhibit, Long created the atmosphere of an artist’s studio. Appearing as a workroom of sorts, the original dresses will be displayed alongside the various stages of the reproduced inner sections—pencil lines and notes still on the muslin fabric patterns. Tutorial diagrams will describe the section and techniques used. Lopez sketches will add another element of understanding to James’ vision.
In his lifetime, James was seen by many as technically superior to Christian Dior. While he saw the height of his career in the late 1940s, he is a relevant force in the fashion world today nearly 40 years after his death. “New emphasis on the significance of clothing as historical artifacts has increased interest in the collection,” says Long.
Angelina Jolie wore an original Charles James in the 2010 Columbia Pictures film The Tourist. The gray day dress features a boat neckline, trumpet sleeves, and a pencil skirt with a draped and pleated center back flair. “James’ dresses were meant to be seen in movement,” says Long. For this dress, James put an off-center flair at the back that is only visible when the woman moves. The pencil silhouette front view never changes.
“The goal of our exhibit is to present to the world our collection of Charles James, and to present a fresh look at his legacy and what made him so special,” concludes Long. “And, we can learn a lot about Chicago through these clothes. We all share the common understanding of wearing clothes—it’s a cool way to look at our city.”
For more information, call 312-642-4600, or visit chicagohistory.org.