Charles James (1905-1978) American
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.
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.
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.
Home Sewing Connection: This is an example of a Charles James sewing pattern put out by The American Weekly.
His style, innovations, and influence on fashion:
- The batwing, oval cape coat, bouffant ball gown, and asymmetrical shapes were his design hallmarks.
- 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.
- 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.