Anglo-American designer Charles James was recognized even in his heyday as a genius in the art of sculpting fabric into inventive fashions. While he produced fewer than a thousand garments over the forty-year span of his career, today he holds cult status in fashion circles, as much for his legacy of unforgettable clothes as for the magnetic force of his complex personality and his unorthodox creative process. Never having had formal dressmaking training, he developed his own methodology based on mathematical, architectural, and sculptural concepts as they relate to the human body. His venturesome and wholly original methods inspired and fascinated his contemporaries as well as the generations of designers and admirers of his fashions who followed.
Early Life and London Career
A contemporary of American designers Gilbert Adrian, Norman Norell, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, Christian Dior, James was born in 1906 in Surrey, England, of English and American parentage. His mother hailed from a socially prominent Chicago family and his father was a British military officer. Raised and educated in England, he initiated his design career in 1926, at the age of nineteen, as a milliner in Chicago using the name “Boucheron.” Two years later, he set up a fledgling dressmaking business in New York, where one of his first commissions was to design sporting togs for the actress Gertrude Lawrence. Returning to his British roots in 1929, he began to establish ties with influential figures in London and Paris, which, after several failed attempts, led by the mid-1930s to a viable dressmaking business conducted from 15 Bruton Street, London, and the Lancaster Hotel in Paris. Recognized for his iconoclastic approach to dressmaking, he traveled in circles orbited by artistic and creative luminaries such as Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Pavel Tchelitchew, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dalí. Couturiers Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior were also among his acquaintances and early supporters. Dior in fact attributed his New Look designs to a James idea. These associations profoundly affected James’ artistic development and, on a more practical level, provided the contacts he needed to develop relationships with sartorially adventuresome women from English society. Among these were Mary St. John Hutchinson, writer and mistress of Bloomsbury artist Clive Bell; Anne, countess of Rosse, sister of the set designer Oliver Messel; the dancer Tilly Losch; and the then-debutante Marit Guinness Aschan, who later became a renowned enamelist. During the London/Paris years, James developed a lifelong fascination with complex cut and seaming, creating key design elements and forms that he would use throughout his career—the wrapover trouser skirt, the body-hugging “Sirène” dress, ribbon capes and dresses, spiral-cut garments, front-point drapery, and poufs, examples of which are shown here.
New York Career
James left London and moved permanently to New York in late 1939. By 1945, after briefly working for Elizabeth Arden, whose showroom he designed, James had gained sufficient recognition to open his own workroom and salon at 699 Madison Avenue. From there he worked in the pure couture tradition, custom-designing, fitting, and creating new forms for America’s most prominent and stylish women, among them the style-setting heiress Millicent Rogers; the art patron Dominique de Menil; Austine McDonnell Hearst, journalist and wife of publisher William Randolph Hearst Jr.; and the entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee. Although his artistic perfectionism and conflicted psychological makeup led him to behave erratically and irresponsibly in all areas of his life, his clients clamored to be dressed by him and went to great lengths to support him artistically and financially. In a 1957 letter held in the Brooklyn Museum archives, Dominique de Menil wrote to Director Edgar C. Schenck: “My husband and I consider Charles James to be one of the most original and universal designers of this period and in this country. . . . Traveling as we do . . . we are amazed to see how many dresses from the Paris Couture actually can be traced back to Charles James.”
James was at the height of his popularity and productivity in the early 1950s. The culminating design of his dressmaking career was, in his opinion, a 1953 ball gown with an undulating four-lobed skirt known as the “Abstract,” or “Four-Leaf Clover.” Created initially for Austine McDonnell Hearst to wear to the Eisenhower inaugural ball, it merged James’ skills as a sculptor, architect, and engineer in one spectacular statement. Perhaps buoyed by this achievement, he went on to design several equally memorable models in the following two years—the “Butterfly,” “Tree,” and “Swan” gowns, each having profusions of multicolored tulle, and the spare, body-hugging “Diamond,” the structural and formal opposite of the others. Aside from his ball gowns, the outstanding designs of the early 1950s were his innovative sculptural coats produced in association with the manufacturers William S. Popper and Dressmaker Casuals. These associations, like several others, were, however, short-lived, as James’ perfectionism and difficult artistic temperament ran counter to the demands of the ready-to-wear environment. He received prestigious awards from his peers in the fashion industry, including two Coty awards in 1950 and 1954, which cited his masterful skills as a colorist, draper, and sculptor. Neiman-Marcus as well bestowed acknowledgment for his outstanding contributions to the fashion industry in 1953.
In 1952, James expanded his business, moving from his cramped quarters at 699 Madison Avenue to two locations—a workroom at 716 Madison Avenue, where he instituted wholesale manufacturing along with custom work, and a showroom at the highly prestigious address 12 East 57th Street. Despite this success, his reputation began to wane mid-decade as economic woes, brought on by a lifelong pattern of fiscal irresponsibility, endless litigation, and an inability to work within the mainstream fashion industry, engulfed him. He vacated his workshop and showroom in 1958, but continued to work in reduced circumstances, tirelessly perfecting former designs and formulating new ones, and, most significantly, developing projects that would preserve his legacy. The last fourteen years of his life were spent in rooms at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street, New York’s legendary haven for artists down on their luck. There he maintained a coterie of devoted clients, friends, and admirers with whom he worked and held court until his death.
Summary of Styles and Techniques
James’ oeuvre is diverse and complex, the result of a restless creative force that was constantly pushing the boundaries of convention and his own previous accomplishments. Because his designs took many forms with countless variations, they are hard to characterize or classify. Some are elegant and timeless, while others are odd and controversial, having insectlike, vertebral, or other biomorphic features. Some incorporate the essence of modernity, while still others are updated versions of Victorian fashions.
One of James’ credos was that there are a limited number of shapes and silhouettes but innumerable variations on them. He followed this tenet throughout his career by reusing and reworking forms and components once he had developed them, but always in different combinations, a method that resulted in wholly new compositions. No matter what type of garment or shape he was creating, James used the female body as the point of reference rather than the defining factor of his formulation. Some of his designs cleave to the body, relying solely on cut, seams, and inventive ways of manipulating the fabric to achieve style and fit; others enhance and idealize its natural form with interior padding, corsetlike boning, and exterior drapery; and still others reshape the body into fantastic silhouettes that stand away from it. In these latter instances, he used one of two methods to achieve the effect: rigid, confining understructures, often modeled on Victorian prototypes such as the corset, bustle, and crinoline; or, conversely, perfectly calibrated cut, fabric choice, and variations in placement of grain and seams based on geometric principles. He considered the space between the body and the fabric to be the crucial design focus when planning these standaway shapes. Within all of this diversity there are also constants: James’ offbeat yet sublime color sense, his artistry with combining fabrics having different surfaces and textures, and the exhilarating tracery of seams that follow the curves of the body, dissect it like a knife, or taper into infinity at the end of a dart.
Because they are the epitome of elegance and originality, as much sculpture as glamorous raiment, the incomparable evening dresses James produced between 1947 and 1955 are the designs for which he is best remembered. Yet his tailored suits, coats, and more understated daywear are equal objects of admiration. In these, his methods of achieving precise fit and resolving volumetric and proportional challenges, as well as his seemingly endless variations on collars, lapels, and sleeves, are most apparent, further signifiers of the range and perfectionism of his art.
Formation of the Charles James Collection at the Brooklyn Museum
Drawn to the Brooklyn Museum’s reputation for teaching and inspiring new design through accessibility to the collections, James selected it to document his career and care for his legacy. Using his prodigious powers of persuasion, he convinced his most important clients and benefactors—Hearst, Rogers, and de Menil among them—to donate and, in some instances, purchase significant designs representing what he referred to as the “corpus” of his work. He is thereby largely responsible for the museum’s definitive holdings—nearly 200 garments and 600 related materials such as patterns, full sewn muslins, dress forms, and sketches. With the transfer of the Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this extraordinarily rich trove is now part of The Costume Institute’s collection.