Although born in England, Charles James is considered one of America’s greatest couturiers. Photographer Cecil Beaton’s iconic image of 1948, which shows a group of mannequins wearing dramatic James’ evening gowns in the elegantly paneled room of a London residence, epitomizes his contribution to post-war glamor. His clothes are known for their astounding complexity, beauty and use of luxurious fabrics.
Bestowed with an obsessive personality, James was a perfectionist who was known to reconsider the construction and cut of a dress – even a single sleeve – for years. His output was limited as a result, but this was of no consequence, because he was uninterested in the cycles of fashion. However, his perfectionist drive and methods towards fashion did prevent him from entering the ready-to-wear market.
The complexity of the cut of his clothes produced garments that changed dramatically in appearance when looked at from different angles. Caroline Rennolds Milbank notes in her book, Couture, that James was ‘always refining, always working towards a moment when it would exactly embody his vision. His evening dresses especially look as if they were captured in the moment or unfurling… they capture the essences of movement, they were “moments in time”.’
Undoubtedly, the sculptural cut of his clothes found its genesis in his training as an architect in Chicago. His most famous ball gown was the ‘Clover’, based on the shape of a four-leafed clover. It was designed to be seen at best advantage from above, and consisted of four black velvet panels set into white satin. James always considered his dresses to be works of art and renewed and reworked similar designs over and over again.
Often made from vast quantities of fabric (up to 25 meters / 27 yards), using luxurious materials such as satin, velvet and tulle, and under laid with three differently cut petticoats, they could weigh up to 7 kg (15 lb). Despite this, owing to James’s mastery in distributing the weight of the fabrics, the dresses were reputedly as light as a feather to wear. He had a brilliant sense of color and juxtaposed the most beautiful colored linings with the more subdued colors of his jackets and coats, which included celadon sky blue, chestnut and various shades of rose.
James started as a milliner in Chicago, in 1926, and opened his couture house in London in 1930. Following bankruptcy, and with the outbreak of the war, he returned to New York, opening another couture house in 1940. His businesses fell in and out of bankruptcy for the rest of his life.