Fashion Industry Profile: Chapter 1. A Century of Fashion

My history of fashion research on the legendary designer–Charles James

Charles Wilson Brega James was born in 1906 in Great Britain, and died in 1978 in New York. At the age of 19, he opened his first hat shop in Chicago, and two years later he moved to New York and started his dress designs. Basically, he didn’t go to design schools but taught himself about design and dressmaking. His most successful collections were in the late 1940s and mid-1950s. Because of his remarkable works, he was referred to as “America’s first couturier”. His works have been highly evaluated in the recent years. His dresses were shown in the MET in 2014, and some of his major works are now being exhibited in the FIT museum.

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Artist and studio by Cecil Beaton (1929)

What is his most famous silhouette? Let’s look at this photo.

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The James Encyclopedia by Cecil Beaton (1948)

At the very first sight, it doesn’t even look like a photo but an oil painting. The eight models all dressed in the gorgeous ball gowns designed by Charles James. These gowns looked very feminine, elegant, and at the same time, sexy. They are in different colors and different designs, but they all share something common. For example, they are all one-shoulder or off-shoulder, they all emphasize the bust and constrict the waist, they all have a broad skirt with a corset inside, and they all use luxury fabrics.

When I first saw these dresses, my impression was, wow, these look very similar to the princess-shape wedding dress, or what a princess could wear in a Disney movie. Of course, back at that time he wasn’t influenced by Disney. What could have influenced his design?

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Empress Eugénie surrounded by her ladies in waiting by Franz Winterhalter (1881)

From this painting above, we can find much similarities with the photo of eight models we just saw. This is a famous painting Empress Eugenie surround by her ladies in waiting, painted by Franze Winterhalter in 1881. Those ladies were living in the palace of France, and they had this elegance as royal family. In Charles James’ designs, we can also see this kind of mid-century glory.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, right after World War II, women of high status had a desire to dress like these gorgeous ladies as they could return to the Napoleon’s Second Empire. They were so eager to look feminine and sexy, confident and independent. Charles James’s ball gowns exactly meet the demands of the upper class society.

Let’s take a closer look at his signature collection, Four-Leaf Clover Gown.

These are two garments of the same shape he designed in 1953. The left one is made of silk. The amazing part is that he dramatically changed silk into a complex structure to show the sense of movement. He also had an incredible color sense and liked to combine different colors of the same fabrics. As a perfectionist, he worked for years on refining the seam lines, shapes and constructs.

The one in the middle, with white silk satin and black silk-rayon velvet, was his personal favorite. This dress weighed 15 pounds but with the skirt suspended from the waist and rested on the hip, it felt perfectly weightless.

The sketch on the right shows how James’s dress is constructed. It has several layers with complicated understructures. The interior is stiff, but from the outside, it looks fluid. This shows how James was fascinated by geometry, mathematics and engineering.

Another signature silhouette is the Swan Gown. It featured a draped bodice and a black chiffon and tulle skirt in the draped apron style.

In the right picture was his wife Nancy James wearing a full-length Swan Gown. The two on the left are the shorter version. We can see from the back, this dress looked like a swan with wings folded gracefully on its back.

This iconic silhouette is called the Butterfly Gown, an ultimate version of the tight bustle dress. These are three different perspectives of the same dress. You can see the combination of like colors in the same fabrics and how color change in different layers. This dress resembles the narrow body of caterpillar from the front, and a butterfly when looking from the back.

By the way, the owner of this dress purchased it at Lord & Taylor for $1,250, the equivalent of $12,000 today. According to the owner, the dress was surprisingly comfortable to wear despite its eight-pound weight and the large skirt.

As a designer with such remarkable achievements, how was Charles James perceived by others? His contemporary Christian Dior gave him very high praise and called his designs “poetry” and “the greatest talent of my generation.” Another famous designer Balenciaga said Charles James was “Not only the most eminent American couturier, but also the best, and the only one in the world who has raised haute couture from an applied art form to a pure art form.” Marc Jacobs said, “He understood human nature, how people want to adorn themselves and be spectacular.”

How did he look at himself? He considered himself to be an artist, a sculptor, an engineer, an architect, rather than a dressmaker. He was indeed a poor businessman, and he thought his works should be exhibited in a museum. Of course he has a point.

His works are not out-of-date. In fact, we can still see his great impact on today’s designers. One example is the evening dress and wedding dress designed by an American designer, Zac Posen.

Zac Posen was born in 1980, and graduated from Parsons and Central Saint Martin.

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Zac Posen

When we look at his RTW collections of recent years, we can see the designs similar to Charles James’s designs, in terms of both fabrics and silhouettes.

These dresses allow a woman to cover the faults her body and make her look perfect. I think that is why girls choose this type of dress in their wedding, so we can show an ideal self with confidence on the most important day of our lives.

Some of my own thoughts on the differences and similarities of the two designers. The shape of the dress, the materials it uses, and the construction look very similar. Below are two videos from MET and Zac Posen’s interview, showing how they structured the spacious dress. Both used corset and understructures to support the skirt and both used luxury materials to show the movement of the surface.

Zac Posen explaining the anatomy of his dress on Vogue: click here

One of the differences is that one is couture, designed specifically for each customer, and one is RTW, affordable for a larger audience. Another difference is the use of color. While Charles James tend to combine different colors into one dress, Zac Posen tend to use monotone in one dress. The third point was only a guess. The weight of Charles James’s dress was usually very heavy, as it was constructed as a 3-dimension architecture and had many structures inside. A study of most of the dresses shows that he simply applied more and more layers until he achieved the needed density and shape. Some dresses are reportedly nearly 50 pounds in weight, but their engineering balance made them wearable. On the other hand, Zac Posen’s dress seem to be comparatively light.

In fact, the Charles James label was purchased in 2014 and Zac Posen was chosen to help relaunch the brand. To conclude, although 70 years has passed since Charles James released his signature ball gowns, his iconic style is still remembered by people and revived by the designers in the modern days, which best demonstrates that “over time, fashion repeats itself.”

The End 🙂


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