Charles James (designer)

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Charles James
1934 wedding dress by Charles James for Baba Beaton.jpg
Wedding dress with orange-blossom choker, 1934, for Baba Beaton. V&A Museum.
Born Charles Wilson Brega James
(1906-07-18)18 July 1906
Agincourt House, Camberley, Surrey, United Kingdom
Died 23 September 1978(1978-09-23) (aged 72)
New York, New York, United States
Nationality British-American
Partner(s) Nancy Lee Gregory (1954–61)
Children Charles James Jr.
Louise Dominique James
Parent(s) Ralph Ernest Haweis James
Louise Enders Brega
Awards Coty Award (1950 and 1954)
Neiman Marcus Fashion Award (1953)

Charles Wilson Brega James (18 July 1906 – 23 September 1978) was a British-born fashion designer known as "America's First Couturier". A master of cutting, James is most famous for his sumptuous ballgowns and highly structured aesthetic.[1][2] James is one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century and continues to influence new generations of designers.[3]

Early life[edit]

James' father, Ralph Ernest Haweis James, was a British army officer and instructor at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. His mother, Louise Enders Brega, came from a wealthy Chicagoan family.[4][5] In 1919, he attended Harrow School, where he met Evelyn Waugh, Francis Cyril Rose, and, most importantly, Cecil Beaton, with whom he formed a longstanding friendship. He was expelled from Harrow for a "sexual escapade".[6]

After that, James briefly studied music at the University of Bordeaux in France, before he was sent to Chicago to work. The utilities magnate Samuel Insull, a friend of the family, found him a position at the "architectural design department", where he acquired the mathematical skills that later enabled him to create the sophisticated gowns for which he was famous.[7]

At the age of nineteen, in 1926, James opened his first milliner shop in Chicago, using the name of "Charles Boucheron", as his disapproving father forbade him to use that of James.[8]


From Charles Boucheron to Charles James[edit]

In 1928, he left Chicago for Long Island with 70 cents, a Pierce Arrow, and a number of hats as his only possessions. He later opened a millinery shop above a garage in Murray Hill, Queens, New York, beginning his first dress designs.[5] At the time, he presented himself as a "sartorial structural architect". By 1930, he had designed, or "shaped" as he preferred to say, the spiral zipped dress and the taxi dress ("so easy to wear it could be slipped on in the backseat of a taxi").[9]

From New York James moved to London, setting up shop in Mayfair. He designed the wedding dress for 'Baba' (Barbara) Beaton, Cecil Beaton's sister, for her marriage to Alec Hambro on November 6, 1934. James created a very modern interpretation of the white wedding dress, with a raised neckline and divided train. In 1936, he established the company Charles James (London) Ltd., using his own name officially for the first time.

James also spent time in Paris in the early 1930s, working from the Hôtel Lancaster.[6] He showed his first collection in the French capital in 1937. That same year, he created a one-of-a-kind white satin quilted jacket described by Salvador Dali as "the first soft sculpture", and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections.[10] This jacket has been considered the starting point for "anoraks, space man and even fur jackets".[11] In the 1930s, he also invented the Pavlovian waistband that expands after a meal.[9]

Meanwhile, he licensed his fashion designs with American department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman.[9]

New York career[edit]

James moved permanently to New York in 1939, where he established Charles James, Inc. At the end of the Second World War, he designed a clothing line for Elizabeth Arden.

In 1947, James showed one of his most successful collections in Paris. The following year, Millicent Rogers organized an exhibition of the outfits he made for her at the Brooklyn Museum, entitled A Decade of Design for Mrs Millicent H. Rogers by Charles James.[12] Also in 1948, Cecil Beaton famously photographed eight of James creations for Vogue.

James was at the height of his career in the early 1950s. At that time, he spent most of his time in New York at his 699 Madison Avenue workshop. Reaching the pinnacle of American fashion, he won two Coty Awards, in 1950 and 1954, and one Neiman Marcus Award in 1953. That year he conceived the "Four-Leaf Clover" or "Abstract" ballgown for the journalist Austine Hearst.[9] It was the dress James ranked as his best creation.[6] This dress weighed no less than 12 pounds and had to be supported by a rigid structure. James indeed had an iconoclastic approach to dressmaking.

James looked upon 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. He 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.[6]

After returning to New York City from Paris, Arnold Scaasi worked for James for two years.[13] Scaasi was notably in charge of the ready-to-wear line. After he left, James dropped the line and returned to licensing special designs to American departments, which would produce and distribute them themselves.

He designed the interior and several pieces of furniture for the Houston home of John and Dominique de Menil.[14]

Although his artistic perfectionism and bad temper led him to behave erratically, his clients went to great lengths to support him. James was more of an artist than of a businessman. He retired in 1958.[8]

Personal life[edit]

In 1954, James married Nancy Lee Gregory, who was well-off, from Kansas, and 20 years his junior. Together, they had a son and daughter.[6] After the birth of their son, Charles James Jr. in 1956, he also produced a children's collection. Daughter Louise was born in 1957; she was named for his mother. Their marriage dissolved in 1961.[5]

In 1964, he moved to the Hotel Chelsea, where he had three sixth-floor rooms for his work space, office, and apartment.[15] There he maintained a coterie of devoted clients, friends, and admirers, and continued to work albeit in much reduced circumstances. Homer Layne, a graduate student at that time, was James' assistant for several years until his death in 1978 of bronchial pneumonia.[9]


Influence on fashion designers[edit]

According to Harold Koda, The Costume Institute curator in charge, James "transformed fashion design".[9] One of the most significant fashion designers of the 20th century, James inspired many fashion personalities, including Christian Dior who said that he was "the greatest talent of my generation". Christian Dior is said to have credited James with inspiring The New Look.[9][16] Cristóbal Balenciaga portrayed James as "the only dressmaker who has raised [fashion] from an applied art to a pure art form".[citation needed]

In the 2017 film Phantom Thread, Reynolds Woodcock is loosely based on James;[17] director Paul Thomas Anderson had become interested in the fashion industry after reading about Balenciaga.[18]

Museum exhibitions[edit]

James himself contributed to shape his legacy. In the 1970s, he worked together with Antonio to draw all of his creations.

James accumulated many documents that he actively tried to give to museums. He hoped that his fashion designs, which he thought of as artworks, would enter museum collections. He even convinced Millicent Rogers to gift her wardrobe to the Brooklyn Museum. Her gift, along with the fashion collection of the museum, has since been transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Several exhibitions celebrated James's contributions to fashion history. The Brooklyn Museum presented The Genius of Charles James from October 1982 to January 1983.[19]

The Chicago History Museum exhibited Charles James: Genius Deconstructed between October 2011 and April 2012.[20]

In 2014, James's work was the subject of the opening exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Anna Wintour Costume Center entitled Charles James: Beyond Fashion.[9] At a preview of the exhibit, Elettra Wiedemann modeled a replica of the "Four-Leaf Clover" ballgown.[9] James was also the theme of the Metropolitan Museum's annual gala.

In July 2014, longtime friend R. Couri Hay shared sketches by James, along with stories and anecdotes about the late designer with New York Magazine.[21]

James without Charles James[edit]

In May 2014, concomitantly to the James retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, The Weinstein Company (TWC) announced it had signed a license agreement with James's heirs, Charles Jr. and Louise James, to produce new collections, and thus contribute to the brand revival. Two years of legal battle followed, opposing the heirs, who sought to file the brand to the name of their father, against the Luvanis company, which had already registered the brand in an array of jurisdictions worldwide.[22]

At the time, Zac Posen was rumored to be the next artistic designer of the brand.[23]

In June 2016, TWC withdrew, Luvanis thereafter partnered with James' heirs to revive the Charles James brand.[24]

Further reading[edit]

  • Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. "Abstracting the 'Abstract' Gown." Dress: The Journal of the Costume Society of America 8, no.1 (January 1982), pp. 27-31.
  • Gerber Klein, Michele, Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art, New York, Rizzoli, 2018, 256 p. (ISBN 978-0847861453).
  • Koda, Harold et al. (préf. Ralph Rucci), Charles James : Beyond Fashion, New Haven, Yale University Press, coll. « Metropolitan Museum of Art », 2014, 300 p. (ISBN 978-0300204360)
  • Long, Timothy, Charles James: Designer in Detail, Londres, V&A Publishing, 2015, 160 p. (ISBN 978-1851778218)
  • Martin, Richard, Charles James, London, Assouline, 2006, 79 p. (ISBN 978-2843238970)


  1. ^ "Costume Institute Gala: Forgotten Brit is ready to wow the Met Ball - Telegraph". Retrieved 2014-08-22. 
  2. ^ "Dressing Up". The New Yorker. 2014-05-05. Retrieved 2014-08-22. 
  3. ^ Koda, Harold (2014). Charles James: Beyond Fashion. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 11. 
  4. ^ Thurman, Judith (10 May 2010). "Closet Encounters". The New Yorker. p. 3. Retrieved 12 February 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c ""Charles James" ''Voguepedia''". Retrieved 2014-08-22. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Roux, Caroline (14 April 2014). "Master of the robes: Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  7. ^ Koda, Harold (2014). Charles James: Beyond Fashion. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 18. 
  8. ^ a b Jacobs, Laura (1998). "Gowned for Glory". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 2017-12-12. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Feitelberg, Rosemary (11 February 2014). "The Costume Institute Previews 'Charles James: Beyond Fashion'". WWD. Retrieved 12 February 2014. 
  10. ^ "Evening jacket, Charles James, 1937". V&A Search the Collections. V&A Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  11. ^ Glynn, Prudence (1978). In fashion : dress in the twentieth century. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 37. ISBN 9780195200720. 
  12. ^ "A Decade of Design for Mrs Millicent H. Rogers by Charles James". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 2017-12-12. 
  13. ^ Anne Bissonnette, Curator for The Kent State University Museum Scaasi An American Icon retrieved 29 June 2006
  14. ^ Middleton, William. 'There is a fantasy that propels his mind forward: How the American Couturier Charles James Left His Sumptuous Mark on the de Menils.' System, no. 2 (Autumn-Winter 2013), pp.108-31.
  15. ^ "Charles James's Chelsea: Archival Evidence of an Artist's Life on 23rd Street". The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Retrieved 2017-12-12. 
  16. ^ Callahan, Eileen. "Nothing New in New Look, Says Designer, Proving It". Sunday News [Daily News], (New York). April 4, 1948
  17. ^ Dowd, A.A. (7 December 2017). "P. T. Anderson Reunites with Daniel Day-Lewis for the Exquisite Mad Love of Phantom Thread". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2 February 2018. 
  18. ^ Sullivan, Kevin P. (2 November 2017). "Paul Thomas Anderson opens up about Phantom Thread for the first time". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 3 November 2017. 
  19. ^ "The Genius of Charles James". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 2017-12-12. 
  20. ^ "Charles James: Genius Deconstructed | Chicago History Museum". Retrieved 2017-12-12. 
  21. ^ Véronique Hyland. "Hyland, Veronique. The Secret Life of Fashion Designer Charles James. New York Magazine. July 1, 2014". Retrieved 2014-08-22. 
  22. ^ "The Charles James Revival: An Exclusive Look at the Behind-the-Scenes War". The Fashion Law. Retrieved 2017-12-12. 
  23. ^ "Zac Posen to Revive Charles James Fashion House". Harper's BAZAAR. 2015-03-02. Retrieved 2017-12-12. 
  24. ^ Socha, Miles (2016-06-23). "Charles James Heirs Seek Brand Revival With New Partner". WWD. Retrieved 2017-12-12. 

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