Charles James was an Anglo-American designer renowned for his sculptural creations. From his early days working in architecture, he developed the mathematical and geometric skills that would later inform his design process. He applied carefully placed cuts, seams and under structures to create innovative shapes that were at times independent of the body underneath.
Charles James was born in Surrey, England in 1906. His father was a British military officer and his mother came from a prominent family in Chicago. As a young boy, Charles attended in the traditional Harrow School. Although he did not finish his studies there – he was expelled – it was in Harrow that he started his lifelong friendship with Cecil Beaton.
After a brief attempt to study music at the University of Bordeaux, Charles moved to Chicago. There he got involved with architecture and engineering, thanks to his family’s connections with Samuel Insull. It was in this job that Charles developed the mathematical skills that would influence his creative process.
In 1926, while still in Chicago, he opened a millinery shop under the name Charles Boucheron, to the disapproval of his conservative father. A couple of years later he moved his business to New York, where he also started to design dresses. Already at these early stages he identified himself as a ‘sartorial structural architect’.
James returned to England in 1929. His first years back were a struggle, but after several failed attempts, he established a viable dressmaking business (under his real name) at 15 Bruton Street in London, and at the Lancaster Hotel in Paris. His unusual and complex designs caught the attention of artistic circles in both cities and soon he had acquainted himself with artists such as his childhood friend Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. Also in the fashion sphere he managed to amass an enviable group of supporters, including Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior.
These artistic connections not only stimulated his creative development but also enabled him to build an interesting clientele within English society. Beaton’s sister, ‘Baba’ wore a custom Charles James for her wedding on 6 November 1934. Oliver Messel’s sister, Anne, Countess of Rose, dancer Tilly Losch, writer Mary St. John Hutchinson and enamellist Marit Guinness Aschan also donned James’s creations.
With the outbreak of World War II, James relocated to New York, living there until his death. He established his workshop and salon at 699 Madison Avenue, where he further developed his experimentations with complex cuts and sculptural shapes.
By 1945 he was dressing some of the most stylish women in the country. Although famed for his difficult temperament and perfectionism, clients like Dominique de Menil, Austine McDonnell Hearst and Millicent Rogers loyally supported his artistic and financial needs. In 1957 de Menil wrote to the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Edgar C. Schenck, stating her admiration for the designer:
My husband and I consider Charles James to be one of the most original and universal designers of this period and in this country. … Travelling as we do… we are amazed to see how many dresses from the Paris Couture actually can be traced back to Charles James.
Heiress Mary Millicent Abigail Rogers was one of James’s most notable clients. The granddaughter of oil tycoon Henry Huttleston Rogers, Millicent was often featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar for her trendsetting wardrobe and in the gossip columns for her romantic life. She was unsuccessfully married three times – to an ‘gold-digging Austrian count’ (according to the The New York Times) in 1920, a wealthy Argentine in 1927, and an American stockbroker in 1935.
Millicent developed a very personal sense of style, which perfectly fitted James’s sculptural designs. Their relationship was a collaborative one; Millicent is said to have been his greater inspiration. In 1948, she donated her Charles James collection (about 40 dresses) to the Brooklyn Museum for the exhibition A Decade of Design for Mrs. Millicent H. Rogers by Charles James. The show featured the evening gowns, coats and daywear displayed alongside their half and full toiles.
James reached his creative peak in the early 1950s. In 1952 he opened a showroom at the prestigious address 12 East 57th Street and re-located his studio to larger quarters at 716 Madison Avenue, where both his bespoke and wholesale lines were produced. The next couple of years saw the creation of some of his most iconic designs, starting with the ‘Four-Leaf Clover’ or ‘Abstract’ ball gown – the best in his opinion – followed by the ‘Butterfly’, ‘Tree’, ‘Swan’ and ‘Diamond’ dresses. There were also his sculptural coats in a short-lived collaboration with manufacturers William S. Popper and Dressmaker Casuals, and his exacting tailored suits.
For each new shape created, Charles James developed endless variations. Throughout his career he constantly re-visited his designs, mixing fabrics of different textures and weights, and interchanging components such as lapels, collars and sleeves. By reworking his combinations, he was able to achieve entire new compositions.
Charles James’s prolific work in the 1950s was highly praised and well-received by his peers in the fashion industry. He received two Coty Awards: one in 1950 for his ‘masterful skills as a colourist, draper, and sculptor’ (Reeder, 2012), and a second one in 1954 for innovative cutting. He was also presented with Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion in 1953.
James had an interesting relationship with the body; he used it as only a starting point, allowing his creations to take their own independent forms. He relied on cuts, seams, drapery, padding and under structures to achieve shapes that sometimes enhance an idealised figure and other times produce new silhouettes divorced from the body. To assist him, he referred to the engineering principles learnt earlier in life and to Victorian supporting garments, such as the corset, bustle and crinoline.
His ideal body was long and slender – no wonder some of his most loyal clients were tall and skinny! In 1949 he started altering his mannequins to better conform to his standards. He started by elongating the torso, dropping the waistline and repositioning the armholes. By 1951 he had created uniquely proportion dress form christened Jenny and produced by the mannequin manufacturer Cavanaugh Form Company.
Despite his creative success, James’s difficult temperament, debilitating perfectionism and a lifelong pattern of fiscal irresponsibility led to his business’s decline. In 1958 he vacated his workshop and showroom and in 1964 permanently relocated to the Chelsea Hotel, New York’s legendary haven for artists. There he continued to work for a handful of devoted clients, although in much reduced circumstances.
In the last years of his life, Charles James worked incessantly to secure his work’s legacy. He recreated toiles and patterns of some of his most successful designs and compiled an archive of sketches, dress forms and letters. He also persuaded his loyal clients and patrons to donated examples of what he referred as the ‘corpus’ of his work. He then chose the Brooklyn Museum, which had a reputation for teaching through the collections, to house all these materials – nearly 200 garments and 600 associated objects. Today this collection is looked after by the Costume Institute, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
 Letter held in the Brooklyn Museum archives
Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Genius of Charles James. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1982.
Gerber Klein, Michele, Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art. New York: Rizzoli, 2018
Koda, Harold et al. Charles James : Beyond Fashion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Long, Timothy A. Charles James: Genius Deconstructed. Chicago: Chicago History Museum, 2011.
Martin, Richard. Charles James. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.
Reeder, Jan Glier. High Style: Masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Reeder, Jan Glier. ‘Charles James (1906–1978).’ In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cjam/hd_cjam.htm> (March 2012)