Charles James: From Chicago to the World

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Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948
Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most people interested in fashion have heard of haute couture's heavy hitters: Coco Chanel, Pierre Cardin, Oscar de la Renta, the list goes on. But people may not be aware of a man named Charles James known as "America's First Couturier" who influenced designers including Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior. What's more, his fashion career started in Chicago.

I was lucky to see the 2012 Chicago History Museum exhibit "Charles James: Genius Deconstructed" and view some of his iconic pieces first hand. In May 2014, Charles James' work was the subject of the opening exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center called Charles James: Beyond FashionWith the exhibit coming to a close on August 10th, I wanted to pay special tribute to this fashion pioneer. Such an exhibit celebrating his work is so well-deserved.

Charles Wilson Brega James (1906-1978) was born in Camberley, Surrey and moved to Chicago as a young adult; his mother, a wealthy socialite from Chicago. He began to work as a milliner in the 1920s. At the age of nineteen, Charles James opened his first of three hat shops on State Street in Chicago, using the name of a schoolfriend, "Charles Boucheron".
In 1928, he left Chicago for New York with less than a dollar and a number of hats as his only possessions. He later opened a hat shop above a garage in Murray Hill, Queens, New York, where he also began his first dress designs. He eventually presented his collection in Marshall Field & Company.

His over 40-year career took him between Paris and London in later years and back to New York. He was known for his lavish ball gowns but also for his quilted jackets, capes, coats and spiral dresses. His clients included Chicago's best dressed socialites as well as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.

James retired around the age of 62 but came out of retirement for one year to work with Halston. James passed away at the 73 in New York City.

Charles James with Model, 1948
Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
James was self-taught and designed highly complex structural pieces. He applied millinery techniques to his work as a dressmaker. His gowns weighing sometimes between 10-25 pounds were engineered to distribute their weight evenly, rendering them wearable pieces of art. He also was among the first to use unorthodox materials and dressmaking techniques such as cellophane, pellon, nylon, billiard cloth, millinery grosgrain (normally used in hats), rayon and exposed zippers.

Photo: Chicago History Museum

In order to better understand the dresses'  interior construction, the Chicago History Museum curators sent dresses through a CT scan at the Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History using equipment normally used to examine ancient mummies. His masterful innovations continue to astonish fashion lovers and continue to influence today's well-known designers for more than 40 years after his death.



The Met's exhibit explores James's design process, specifically his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct revolutionary ball gowns and innovative tailoring that continue to influence designers today. The retrospective features approximately sixty-five of the most notable designs James produced over the course of his career, from the 1920s until his death in 1978. 
- From the MET website









Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art
With the grand opening of the Met's annual fashion exhibit came the Met Gala. Celebrating Charles James as inspiration for the Met Gala, the night promised to be one of the most glamorous events in recent memory...and one of the most exciting red carpet events of the year IMO. These next pics are my favorites that I felt hit the couture mark exuding the inspiration that is Charles James: glamorous, luxurious and elaborate ball gowns.
Karlie Kloss in Oscar de la Renta

Bee Shaffer in an Alexander McQueen


Zac Posen and Dita Von Teese

Hailee Steinfeld in Prabal Gurung

Karolina Kurkova in Marchesa

Sarah Jessica Parker in Dior

And now you know the genius that is Charles James; An artist, first, and fashion designer, second.

Reference: Timothy A. Long from the Chicago History Museum, "Charles James Genius Deconstructed" Copyright 2011 by Chicago Historical Society 

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