The Magic of Charles James

Charles James (b. July 18th 1906, d. September 23rd, 1978) was a (British born) American fashion designer who created truly breathtaking and innovative works of art from about the 1930’s until his death from Bronchial Pneumonia in 1978. Although he was from England, he was known as America’s first couturier, because that is where he lived and worked throughout his career, which began in 1926 at the age of 19, when he opened his first hat shop in Chicago.

As a young man he attended the Harrow School with Evelyn Waugh, Francis Cyril Rose and his long time friend Cecil Beaton. I can’t imagine the times those four had! Charles was expelled for what wikipedia vaguely refers to as “a sexual escapade.”

Though he did spend some time studying in Paris in the early 1930’s, he was mostly self-taught and it is said that Dior credited him with inspiring The New Look.

His dresses were purely whimsical creations, inspired by and named after such things as petals, trees, mermaids (La Sirène), butterflies and the like. He was a notoriously caustic and difficult man to work with, but he had an understanding of women and women’s fantasies that was intuitive and a mind for innovation that was truly unique.


(Image credit: Chicago History Museum) The skirt of Infanta included layers upon layers of black, rust, yellow, beige and brown silk tulle, which could only really be seen when the wearer moved in the dress, creating a deliberately flirty edge to the gown.


(Image credit: Chicago History Museum) La Sirène, which James made variations of for twenty years of his career, was meant to make the wearer look like a mermaid. To quote the Chicago History Museum, “Although James made it to the measurements of the client, the pleats create soft folds around the hips that allow for slight variations in the width of the wearer’s hips.” I love that. This is the man who created the Pavlovian Waistband, which would expand after eating a meal, so you could still be comfy in your outfit even after eating a big dinner! Love. This. Man.


(Image credit: Chicago History Museum) Petal, was designed for Millicent Rogers in 1949. That skirt includes 25 yards of white silk taffeta. The design was revived in 1958 as a ready-to-wear dress for the juniors market.

(Image credit: Chicago History Museum) Tree, the dress my dreams are made of. This light pink silk taffeta confection is so beautiful I get choked up just from looking at it. This is the most gorgeous use of shirring I have ever seen. Wearers of Tree gowns include Gypsy Rose Lee and Mrs. Cornelia Vanderbilt Whitney.

Phantom Thread, a film about Charles James (starring Daniel Day-Lewis as James, as well as Lesley Manville, Richard Graham and Vicky Krieps) written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is slated to be released in theatres on December 25th of this year. I definitely plan on seeing it!

I will end this post with a few more images of some of his beautiful creations, because his work really speaks for itself. The man was a genius who deserves to be remembered as the artist and innovator that he was. He really did elevate haute couture to an art form.

(Image credit: Pinterest)


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