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Designer Spotlight: Charles James
The Museum at FIT presents its Designer Spotlight series where MFIT curators explore objects in our permanent collection that highlight a specific designer's work and their contributions to fashion.
Charles James was a designer’s designer. Although greatly admired by other couturiers, such as Christian Dior and Jacques Fath, he was unknown to the public at large. Indeed, he was often on the verge of bankruptcy, despite creating expensive clothes for some of the world’s most discriminating clients, such as Mrs. Randolph Hearst and Millicent Rogers. A brilliant designer, but a difficult and tormented personality, he made fewer than 1000 garments over the course of a 50-year career. There are many stories of his eccentricities: once, for example, two clients wanted the same dress, so—like King Solomon—he cut it in half. The extreme rarity and originality of his existing garments makes them among the most valuable objects in museum costume collections.
Born in England, James began his career as a milliner in Chicago, working under the name Charles Boucheron. Then he moved to New York, where he also began designing dresses. The influence of millinery can be seen in the way he juxtaposed rigid geometrical forms and fluid folds. Many couturiers of the 1950s incorporated boning and padding into their dresses, but James went much further, often creating an elaborate infrastructure, encasing the wearer’s torso. A virtuoso with fabric, he would then create a superstructure of artfully-draped silk and satin. James is best-known for the intricately-cut, often asymmetrical ball gowns that he designed in the 1940s and 1950s, which sold at the time for about $1500, and can easily fetch 100 times that figure today. A fashion journalist described one evening gown as “so intricately shaped, so marvelously massed into drapery that every angle presents a new silhouette.” The Museum at FIT owns several gowns that James designed for the performer, Lisa Kirk, as well as a beautiful example of his most famous dress, the Abstract or Four-Leaf Clover ball gown. His quilted, padded evening jackets are also justly famous. Although best known for his ability to “sculpt” with fabric, James was also a brilliant colorist, masterfully juxtaposing unexpected colors, such as golden yellow and ice blue.
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