Charles James (b Surrey, July 18, 1906; d New York, Sept 23, 1978) American fashion designer of English birth. James was renowned for his unique, sculptural approach to high fashion. He was born into a traditional upper-class family in 1906 and at 19, he started his first fashion venture with a millinery shop under the name Charles Boucheron. Although supported by friends and family, the shop was unsuccessful and in 1928 James moved to New York and started designing dresses for private clients. This business also did not last and a year later he relocated to London under the name E. Haweis James, though most people already knew him as ‘Charlie’. In an early instance of what was to become a pattern in his career, he soon went bankrupt.
After a brief stint in Paris, James returned to the States in 1939 and opened a shop on 57th Street under his own name. He soon found a financial partner in Mrs Thomas Jenkins Lewis, better known as Elizabeth Arden (1878–1966). In 1944 he showed a collection at her salon that consisted mostly of afternoon dresses made of silk crêpe and satin, and emphasized his particular skills at drapery. Although relevant, the collection did not cement his reputation; it would be several more years until a Charles James design would receive its due recognition.
James and Arden ended their relationship in 1945 due to his excessive expenditure and his accusation that she stole his designs. With the financial support of a family friend, James opened yet another salon. It was here that his company began to grow and prosper, and also here that he eventually created his masterworks: evening gowns that featured extraordinary arrangements of draped silk satin and kimono-inspired jackets and coats.
In 1947, James went to Paris to show his latest collection of day and evening ensembles. Many of Paris’s top couturiers came out in support of him, including Jacques Fath, Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior. Although he was just beginning to receive international acclaim, James had already been planning his own accolades. With the conceit that his designs would be museum-worthy, James kept a detailed record of his work, including all the muslins and paper patterns from which future fashion students could study.
At the peak of his career in 1950, James received the first of his two Coty Awards. Even though James at this point was one of the most expensive couturiers, he was still unable to turn a profit because he could only produce about 100 designs a year. To gain revenue, James embarked on licensing deals with retailers Ohrbachs and Samuel Winston. Though initially successful, these deals eventually fell through due do his poor business practices and unwillingness to compromise on quality. By 1958, James had lost all of his business ventures.
In the following decade, James continued to create designs only for private clients. He spent the later years of his career at his residence in the Chelsea Hotel where he held informal classes on the art of dressmaking, and where he died in 1978.
Charles James has often been called a ‘designer’s designer’, but it is difficult to study the significance of his designs as a part of fashion history because they are not a part of any historical context. They were not of their own time or anytime before and after. A James gown, with its corseting and distortion of the body, could belong to the 19th century (see fig.), but on the other hand, his designs could also be worn well into the 1950s, they are neither dated nor contemporary.
The significance in James’s work may not lie in the designs themselves but rather his approach. As part of his research, he spent three years and $20,000 studying and developing the perfect sleeve, only to lengthen it by one inch. He may be the only designer whose biography includes references to costs for research and development. Because of his exhaustive approach to design, he often referred to each of his gowns as a ‘thesis’, representing a solution to a problem. James also felt that his designs were worthy of being studied in themselves, and he had his ‘Abstract’ gown reviewed by an engineer as proof of his genius. The dress comprises 30 pattern pieces and multiple layers of material. In addition, James also had dress forms made to the exact measurements of his clients, but if he did not feel that a client had the perfect figure, he would simply change the form without thought as to whether or not the dress would fit. Ultimately, a James design stands apart because he was able to realize for the body what others could only idealize.