Charles James: Ahead of His Time

Charles James was perhaps the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century. Christian Dior cited him as the inspiration for the “New Look.” Salvador Dali called his work “soft sculpture.” Balenciaga said that James had elevated fashion “to a pure art form.” He was known both for his avant-garde, sculptural, architectural designs and for his difficult personality. During the peak of his career, from the 1930s to the 1950s, he dressed society ladies like Millicent Rogers and Austine Hearst in highly structured, wasp-waisted, voluminously skirted gowns, and was considered “America’s first couturier.” Yet he largely dropped out of view after the 1950s, and was nearly forgotten by the time of his death in 1978.

Charles James concentrating on the final fitting with Mrs. Harrison (Mona) Williams.

A retrospective of his designs at the Brooklyn Museum in 1982, “The Genius of Charles James,” sparked a resurgence of interest in the designer. The Met’s 2014 Costume Institute exhibition “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” reintroduced his work to a wide public, attracting over half a million visitors.

And now, a new book, Charles James: The Couture Secrets of Shape (Spector Books), explores James’ later years and designs, during which he lived and worked at the Chelsea Hotel and continued to create for a more rock ‘n’ roll crowd than the society matrons he’d dressed at the peak of his popularity, befriending the likes of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Written and edited by Homer Layne, James’ longtime assistant, and Dorothea Mink, a professor of fashion design in Germany, the book delves deeply into the specifics of James’ garment design and construction—even showing how to create his perfect dress forms—and includes a plethora of archival photographs. Layne preserved James’ complete archive after his death—including his patterns, muslins, drawings, and manuscripts—some of which is reproduced in this book, with the aim of imparting how James’ innovative principles and technical achievements can be applied today.

David Wolfson with Pat Cleveland in James’ studio at the Chelsea Hotel, 1972.

“I don’t think that my work has ever been out of date,” James told his friend R. Couri Hay in a conversation originally published in Interview in 1972, “in that it was only ahead of its time, therefore it was only a matter of waiting until it became a new look.” Nearly a half-century after that conversation, pieces like the Eiderdown Jacket (designed in 1937!) remain ahead of their time and continue to influence even the most avant-garde of modern designers. As Rick Owens writes in the book’s preface, “James’ clothes were about order, rigor, and discipline…ideas that suggested an elevated code I admired and wanted to align myself with.” Having achieved immortality via influence, James—no longer relegated to obscurity—lives on.