Friday, January 24, 2014

Charles James, Finally

British born Charles James (1906), studied music and eventually became a hat designer in Chicago. 

Original Charles James Hat on Etsy

At the ripe age of 21 he ventured to New York City where he began designing dresses. Well, it seems silly to call what James constructed merely dresses. As an artist I have always thought that the goal should be not to maintain the status quo but to move the form forward. James moved the form forward and became the shoulders for the possible. Fashion would never be the same, thankfully.

Charles James at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

James' gowns were singular for their construction methods. Borrowing from the heavily corseted and structured Victorian dress, James transformed the tightly laced into the graceful and ethereal. Maintaining the wasp waist hourglass ideal, James' notion of femininity captured the imagination of the fashion world. His draped, tucked and ever so dramatic gowns were worn by Marlene Dietrich and Austine Hearst, wife of Randolf Hearst - publisher of the American Weekly, that would publish mail order patterns of James' designs.

American Weekly Mail Order Patterns

James' designs, though totally original, were elaborate, time consuming and expensive to produce. His customer base was the elite. By the 1950's his following had faded and he retired in 1958. He died alone, of bronchial pneumonia, at the Chelsea Hotel in New York in 1978.

But the good news is that finally, there is a keen interest in the work of this genius couturier. In 2011 The Chicago History Museum mounted Charles James: Genius Deconstructed. This landmark exhibition has whet the appetite for more from this master of form. In May the Metropolitan Museum of Art will open it's doors to Charles James: Beyond Fashion and at the end of May, "A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James" begins a three-month run at the Menil Collection in Houston.

The few sewing patterns that James designed for American Weekly are extremely rare and fetch high prices at auction. But they are worth every penny. Gaze upon these amazing structural works of wearable art.


  1. Oh my, they are stunning! I must get to the exhibit in New York when it opens.