Explore the genius of Charles James
Step into the creativity, passion, and haunting obsession of couturier Charles James. While living in Chicago in the 1920s, James launched his career and established a loyal clientele. In the decades that followed, his dresses enchanted the fashion industry, but surviving examples of his work are so rare that his genius is not widely understood. To get inside James’s mind, Museum staff sought to uncover the secrets held by some of his most iconic pieces. We studied them. Turned them inside out. Sketched, photographed, X-rayed, and recreated them. We deconstructed James. Now, it’s your turn.
Brilliant, creative, difficult, and bizarre, Charles James was one of the twentieth century’s most innovative minds. Charles Wilson Brega James was born in Camberley, a town southwest of London, to Ralph Haweis and Louise Brega James. His father was an English military officer; his mother, a Chicagoan from a socially prominent family. James retained his British citizenship throughout his life. Although largely self-taught, James became a couturiers’ couturier. His clientele included Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, a remarkable testament to his talent. Unfortunately, James’s artistic expression often overpowered his ability to navigate the business side of fashion. He died, impoverished and embittered, in 1978. Yet, as Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr. once said of him, “So we must forgive geniuses their transgressions. Remember them only by the beauty and inspiration they give us, their legacy to us.”
In 1926, at age nineteen, James started his fashion career as a milliner, or hat maker, in Chicago. His daring designs quickly gained attention both locally and in New York. Although James remained in hat making for only a few years, the skills he acquired as a milliner stayed with him throughout his career.
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