The Butterfly gown, the Figure 8 wraparound culotte-skirt, the Taxi dress. Even though Charles James isn’t well known outside the fashion world, his accomplishments were vast and ahead of his time. He proved that fashion is more than clothes—it’s also an art form.
So when the exhibit “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 8, the honor was well deserved. Born in England in 1906, James moved to Chicago, his mother’s hometown, in 1924 to work in the architecture design department of a utilities company. As he sat at his desk, he starting sketching and selling patterned scarves. He was fired, and opened at hat shop on North State Street in 1926. From there, he split his time between cities before eventually settling in New York City.
His millinery training showed through the way he created clothes. He imagined the female form as the framework on which to construct his garments, just as a milliner uses a block to sculpt hats. He even used millinery wire as an underpinning and buckram for bombast. It wasn’t long before James was creating architectural design feats – his Clover Leaf gown was composed of a quatrefoil silhouette, for which he engineered a complicated undercarriage of petticoats so a four–paneled “petal” skirt could float on top. Looking down from the top of the garment, the skirt makes a clover design.
James was at the height of his career in the 1940s and 1950s. By that time, museums, collectors and wealthy patrons were hot on his heels. His most ardent clients included Babe Paley, Millicent Rogers and Mona von Bismarck. Fellow designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel also bought his garments. Although he was a technical genius, he was also a perfectionist, obsessed with reworking a garment until it fit his standards and making promises to investors for which he couldn’t always follow through. Although this would ultimately be his career’s demise, he will always be remembered as the man who took fashion to uncharted heights.
1. Charles James and model. Photo by Cecil Beaton, published in Vogue March 1941
2. Infamous Cecil Beaton photo of group of models in Charles James gowns, 1948
3. Photo from Chicago History Museum exhibit “Charles James: Deconstructing Genius” exhibit, Oct. 22-April 16, 2012
4. Charles James “Clover Leaf” gown, ca.1958, Metropolitan Museum of Art
5. Charles James “Butterfly” ball gown, ca. 1955, Metropolitan Museum of Art
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