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Charles James – Architectural Engineer

Charles James (1905-1978) American  

Cecil Beaton, Vogue, 1948.

Charles James is known for creating three-dimensional, structured dresses made of flowing, luxurious materials. The clothes were heavily manufactured with pads, horsehair canvas, interfacing, boning, and wired cloth to create an inner structure despite the outside illusion of lightness and grace. 

"Petal" gown, 1951.

Comfort was something that James held second to the construction in his clothing. Halston referred to him as the Leonardo da Vinci of fashion — he was more concerned in the construction than what was seen on the surface. He was a sculptor of fabric and his designs depended on intricate cutting and precise seaming rather than outside ornamentation. His gowns were embedded with a pre-determined structure intended to shape and form the body within, hiding numerous figure flaws, if needed. However, the gowns, some requiring 25 yards of fabric and weighing up to 18 pounds, could not have been the most comfortable to wear. In fact, the observer would seem to enjoy the garments more than the actual wearer because of this rigid construction.

"Butterfly" gown.

James often placed his design ideals before practical concerns, which was a factor in his company’s short existence. His success was hampered by the fact that he had no grasp of the costs required in ready-to wear manufacturing. He ignored wartime fabric rationing guidelines, deadlines,  and shipping orders, which resulted in accumulated fees. He was more concerned with using only the best materials and fulfilling his own perfectionist requirements for handcrafted work, in turn increasing cost, time, and labor. This eventually led to bankruptcy and years later to his death at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

The American Weekly 3896.

Home Sewing Connection: This is an example of a Charles James sewing pattern put out by The American Weekly.

Evening dress, 1952.

His style, innovations, and influence on fashion:

  • The batwing, oval cape coat, bouffant ball gown, and asymmetrical shapes were his design hallmarks.

"Pneumatic" satin coat, 1937.

  • His unique down-lined white satin “Pneumatic” evening coat was pictured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1937.
  • The names for his dresses would include the “Pouff,” “Butterfly,” “Sylphide,” “Petal,” and “Four-leaf clover” gowns.

"Four-leaf Clover" gown.

  • He believed that his Four-leaf clover dresswas the culmination of his career with its unique skirt of four lobes formed by an understructure that created eights sides to the skirt.
  • In his later years, James was hired by the designer Halston as a consultant for his company.
  • Since his work focused on custom designed and fitted garments for individual women, his house only created about 1,000 different designs and few of these dresses exist today.

Images: Arizona Costume Institute, Phoenix Art Museum; Brooklyn Museum; Chicago History Museum, Historic Costume & Textiles Collection at The Ohio State University.

Sources: The Genius of Charles James (1984) Elizabeth Ann Colman; Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century, Gerda Buxbaum; Fashion(2003) Christopher Breward; 100 Dresses (2010) Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Who’s Who in Fashion(2008) Anne Stegemeyer; The World’s Most Influential Fashion Designers(2010) Noel Palomo-Lovinski.

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On , Caroline said: | missjacksondesign.blogspot.com

One word: wow!!!!

On , Teresa said:

Charles James is a favorite of costume designers. He is often presented as research to us in the shop. In fact, we are currently working with some of that research.

On , Carolyn said: | brocadegoddess.wordpress.com

I love Charles James’ work. In fact, he has been a major inspiration of mine behind the design of my wedding dress which I’ll be starting to make any time now!

On , Gayle Strege said: | costume.osu.edu

The picture here of the Charles James cloverleaf dress is actually the one in the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection at The Ohio State University. I recognize it because of the damage to the hem. It was taken by Dr. Anne Bissonnette when she was the curator of the Kent State University Museum and borrowed it for an exhibition on James. Unfortunately, the HCTC and Anne are not properly credited with the image here and the link goes to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, where they have a similar dress, instead of to our Collection. So, I’m including our website here. http://costume.osu.edu

Hopefully someone is monitoring this page and will make the appropriate corrections.
Gayle Strege, Curator, The Ohio State University Historic Costume & Textiles Collection

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Hi Gayle,

Thanks for the information, I’ve added a link to the image credits area and changed the link for the four-leaf clover dress. I’m not the writer, but my hunch is that the images were sourced from a book which was credited rather than the museum itself. In any case, hope this helps.

On , Janet said:

In a word, “fabulous”!

I remember reading an article in Cosmo, circa late 70s, about Charles James and how he once sent a competitor – with whom he was engaged in a feud – a beautifully gift-wrapped box that contained thousands of live moths, which of course, dispersed upon opening of said box!