Charles James (designer)

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Charles James
Born Charles Wilson Brega James
(1906-07-18)18 July 1906
Agincourt House, Camberley, Surrey, United Kingdom
Died 23 September 1978(1978-09-23)
New York City, United States
Nationality British-American
Occupation Fashion designer
Partner(s) Nancy Lee Gregory (1954-1961)
Children Charles James Jr. and Louise Dominique James
Parent(s) Ralph Ernest Haweis James and Louise Enders Brega
Awards Coty Award (1950 and 1954) and 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". He is widely considered to have been a master of cutting and is known for his highly structured aesthetic.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

James' father was Ralph Ernest Haweis James, a British army officer and instructor at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. His mother was Louise Enders Brega, a Chicago "patrician".[3][4] 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".[5]

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, a Pierce Arrow, and a number of hats as his only possessions. He later opened a hat shop above a garage in Murray Hill, Queens, New York, beginning his first dress designs.[4]


From New York James moved to London, setting up shop in Mayfair. He also spent time in Paris in the early 1930s, studying, but was primarily a self-taught designer.[5]

James showed one of his most successful collections in Paris in 1947. In the 1950s, he spent most of his time in New York.

According to Harold Koda, The Costume Institute curator in charge, 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)".[6] 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".[6] Christian Dior is "said to have credited James with inspiring The New Look".[6][7]

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,[5] but is also remembered for his capes and coats, often trimmed with fur and embroidery, and his spiral zipped dresses. He is also famed for a unique, one of a kind white satin quilted jacket made in 1938 and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, described as the starting point for "anoraks, space man and even fur jackets".[8][9]

He designed the interior and several pieces of furniture for the Houston home of John and Dominique de Menil.[10]

After returning to New York City from Paris, Arnold Scaasi worked for James for two years.[11] James retired in 1958. Homer Layne, a graduate student at that time, was "James’ assistant for several years until his death in 1978".[6]

Personal life[edit]

In 1954 James married Nancy Lee Gregory, who was well-off, from Kansas, and 20 years younger than he was. Their marriage dissolved in 1961.[4] They had a son and daughter.[5] 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.[4]

James died at the age of 73 in 1978 of bronchial pneumonia. He died at the Hotel Chelsea, in New York City, where he had three sixth-floor rooms for his work space, office, and apartment.[6]


In 2014, his work was the subject of the opening exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center entitled Charles James: Beyond Fashion.[6] At a preview of the exhibit, Elettra Wiedemann modeled a replica of the Clover Leaf, or 'Abstract',[12] ballgown James originally created for Austine Hearst.[6] It was the dress James ranked as the best of his creations.[5] 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". [6]

In July 2014, "longtime friend," R. Couri Hay, shared "dozens of sketches" by Charles, along with several stories about the late designer with New York Magazine in the story entitled: "The Secret Life of Fashion Designer Charles James". Four of Hay's drawings were displayed and on loan to the James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[13]


  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. ^ Thurman, Judith (10 May 2010). "Closet Encounters". The New Yorker. p. 3. Retrieved 12 February 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d ""Charles James" ''Voguepedia''". Retrieved 2014-08-22. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Feitelberg, Rosemary (11 February 2014). "The Costume Institute Previews 'Charles James: Beyond Fashion'". WWD. Retrieved 12 February 2014. 
  7. ^ Callahan, Eileen. 'Nothing New in New Look, Says Designer, Proving It.' Sunday News [Daily News], (New York). April 4, 1948
  8. ^ "Evening jacket, Charles James, 1937". V&A Search the Collections. V&A Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  9. ^ Glynn, Prudence (1978). In fashion : dress in the twentieth century. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 37. ISBN 9780195200720. 
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Anne Bissonnette, Curator for The Kent State University Museum Scaasi An American Icon retrieved 29 June 2006
  12. ^ Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. "Abstracting the ‘Abstract' Gown." Dress: The Journal of the Costume Society of America 8, no.1 (January1982), pp. 27-31.
  13. ^ Véronique Hyland. "Hyland, Veronique. The Secret Life of Fashion Designer Charles James. New York Magazine. July 1, 2014". Retrieved 2014-08-22. 

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