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Charles James  (1906–1978)  was a British-born fashion designer known as “America’s First Couturier.”

He is widely considered to have been a master of cutting and is known for his highly structured aesthetic.

At the age of nineteen in 1926, Charles James opened his first hat shop in Chicago, using the name of a schoolfriend, “Charles Boucheron”.

In 1928, he left Chicago for Long Island with 70 cents, . He later opened a hat shop above a garage in Murray Hill, Queens, New York, beginning his first dress designs .  James who was a self taught designer decided to move from New York to London, where he opened up shop in Mayfair. He also spent spent time in Paris in the early 1930s, studying .

 

Charles James gowns 1949-1953
Charles James gowns 1949-1953

James  produced some of the most memorable garments ever made. He began his design career in the 1930s.

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It peaked between the late 40s and mid-50s, when his scarce and original gowns were sought after by society’s most prominent women. Personally draping and constructing his garments, he is considered the only American to work in the true couture tradition. He saw himself as an artist and sculptor of dress rather than a dressmaker.

 

Charles James gowns, 1951
Charles James gowns, 1951

Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute has expressed that James “transformed fashion design” and his “many advancements included the spiral cut and the taxi dress (created in 1929 and so easy to wear it could be slipped on in the backseat of a taxi).”

 

Charles James, American. Ball Gown with Jacket, c. 1950, silk taffeta, duchess silk satin and silk taffeta.
Charles James, American. Ball Gown with Jacket, c. 1950, silk taffeta, duchess silk satin and silk taffeta.

 

 

James also “championed strapless in the Thirties; invented the figure-eight skirt, the puffer jacket and the Pavlovian waistband that expands after a meal, and was an early proponent of licensing.” Christian Dior is “said to have credited James with inspiring The New Look

"Tree" Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978)
“Tree”
Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978)

 

 

 

charles-jamesJames considered his dresses as works of art, as did many of his customers. Year after year, he reworked original designs, ignoring the sacrosanct schedule of seasons. The components of the precisely constructed designs were interchangeable so that James had a never-ending fund of ideas on which to draw.

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James  is most famous for his sculpted ball gowns made of lavish fabrics and to exacting tailoring standards, but is also remembered for his capes and coats, often trimmed with fur and embroidery, his spiral zipped dresses and his white satin quilted jackets.

charles-james

James also designed the interior and several pieces of furniture for the Houston home of John and Dominique de Menil.

 

After returning to New York City from Paris, Arnold Scaasi worked for James for two years. James retired in 1958. Homer Layne, a graduate student at that time, was “James’ assistant for several years until his death in 1978.”

Personal life

"Swan" Dress, Charles James (American, 1906-1978): 1955, silk, chiffon, satin, nylon.
“Swan” Dress, Charles James (American, 1906-1978): 1955, silk, chiffon, satin, nylon.
charles-james
charles james

In 2014, his work was the subject of the opening exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center called Charles James: Beyond Fashion. At a preview of the exhibit, Elettra Wiedemann modeled a replica of the Clover Leaf ballgown James originally created for Austine Hearst. It was the dress James ranked as the best of his creations. At the preview event, the Costume Institute “detailed the designer’s significance today and showed a 1969 video of a James-led retrospective fashion show.”

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