Fashion Birthday: Charles James


Charles James was born on this day in 1906. Celebrated for his rigorous, structural approach to fashion design, James dressed some of the mid-twentieth century's most stylish women. Key clients, who purchased his designs, and supported him during times of financial distress, included Gypsy Rose LeeBabe PaleyDominique de Menil and Millicent Rogers. James's designs for these and other clients usually treated the body as a reference, not a foundation. Though his daywear exuded subdued elegance, his most breathtaking designs incorporate layers of fabric, padding and boning to create gowns that resemble colorful exoskeletons for the female body. James's spent his career refining and revisiting specific silhouettes; he considered the 1953 Four Leaf Clover gown his thesis piece, the gown that responded to all of his design inquiries.


Dress form
Charles James
Gift of the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum

James was rigorous with both himself and clients in seeking perfection. In the early 1950s, he spent several thousand dollars and two years studying sleeve design. When working with clients, James was not averse to tweaking a gown's measurements if he felt that client's body was less than ideal; whether or not the gown fit the client was an entirely separate concern. In pursuit of the ideal foundation on which to base his garments, in the early 1950s James collaborated with the Cavanaugh Form Company to create dress forms reflecting his vision of the ideal American women. The dimensions of the form were based on the measurements of James's most devoted client, Millicent Rogers. James fine-tuned the design by making a detailed, mathematical study of historic garments housed in the Brooklyn Museum. His calculations resulted in an "Ideal Average" that included an elongated back, forward-tilting pelvis and a 25" inch waistline. This silhouette can also be found in James' design sketches, including a 1955 sketch for his Swan dress.

James's dress forms were stamped with his elegant cursive signature and their size, The Larger or The Smaller. Pictured here is The Larger, which has a 25 1/2" waist. James's torsos–which he named "Jennies" after another client-muse, actress Jennifer Jones–defined the ideal proportions for 1950s high fashion.


2 responses to “Fashion Birthday: Charles James

  1. Charles James is really great fashion designer. He made many good designs for famous people. He is famous amongst people for his design.

  2. Daniel Milford-Cottam says:

    It would be interesting to compare the proportions and dimensions of this form to the 1930s Charles James forms in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s archive that he left with Matilda Etches after fleeing his debtors in the UK.

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