A Preview of Charles James

September 19th, 2011by Lesley BurrFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions

In the 1920s, while living in Chicago, couturier Charles James launched his career and, in the decades that followed, counted the city’s best-dressed among his clientele. James’s 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. Two years later, we have unique copies of three James garments: a 1930s evening gown, the Clover, and the Tree. We deconstructed James. Now, it’s your turn.

“Charley James, style me, please!” is what we imagine this sophisticate saying to designer Charles James. He was known to have many high-profile clients, including Coco Chanel.


Too much was never enough for the first American couturier, as evident in the extravagant cuts and dramatic silhouettes of his designs, including the bodice of the Clover.


A close-up of the pleated detail on Charles James’s iconic Tree gown, which features twenty carefully engineered layers of fabric to give the skirt its structure.


Timothy Long, curator, tried his hand at modeling in a photo shoot for our Charles James exhibition. 


Members of the Chicago History Museum staff gathered to discuss the developing Charles James exhibition. This “rough draft” prototype of the designer’s famous Clover gown will be one of three touchable elements in the exhibition.


This Taxi dress replica, another touchable element, illustrates the flexibility of fabric cut “on the bias,” a technique Charles James often used.


The skirt of the Tree dress will be the exhibition’s third touchable element. It helps illustrate the genius behind James’s work and brings to light the complicated engineering used in many of his gowns.

Charles James: Genius Deconstructed opens Saturday, October 22.

> Learn more about Charles James: Deconstructed

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2 Responses to “A Preview of Charles James”

  1. Elle Says:

    This looks promising. I love exhibits that go into construction methods and details, especially for Charles James; so much of his brilliance goes beyond what you can observe by eyes.

    Looking forward to visiting Chicago this winter!

  2. Despina Koilakou Says:

    Hi !

    How could i order the book Genius Deconstructed ? I can’t Find it on Chicago’s Musheum shop…

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