Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Charles James: Genius Deconstructed"

On this grey Saturday afternoon, I had the pleasure of revisiting some old stomping grounds at the Chicago History Museum and the chance to see the Charles James exhibition that has been in place since October. Charles James, a London born fashion designer, first made his stake in the industry in Chicago in the 1930s. The 1940s and 1950s were the wonder years in Charles James career. In 1946, James presented his first (and only) collection in Paris. "The Paris showing was so successful that Christian Dior credited James as an inspiration for his now-famous 1947 New Look collection."* The exhibit, titled "Charles James: Genius Deconstructed," presents James's work through the lens of construction. James approached dressmaking with techniques that he had acquired making his daring style of hats in the late 1920s. Therefore, James's designs were constantly ahead of their time in style and technique, as well as considered masterworks of art and construction.

One of the highlights for me (outside of the gowns themselves) of the exhibit were the CT scans that were taken of several of the gowns at the Field Museum. The scans revealed the very meticulous construction of the gowns which included intricate metal stays and boning in many of the gowns.

CT scan of Charles James's "Tree" gown

Cover of exhibit catalog** featuring a side by side image of the "Tree" gown and the CT scan taken of the gown

Another highlight of the exhibit for me was a little tidbit of fashion history that I learned about one of my favorite James pieces, the Infanta or also known as the Williamsburg. The two different names for this gown refer to the two different time periods in which a similar style of gown was worn. "Infanta" was a name used for women in the royal Spanish court in the seventeenth century whose wide style skirts are infamous in paintings by Diego Velazquez. The name "Williamsburg" refers to the panniers, an undergarment that widened the appearance of the hips, that women wore in the eighteenth century in the United States.

Left to right: Velázquez, Infanta Don Margarita de Austria, 1660;
Charles James, Infanta, 1952; Robe a l'Anglaise, 1784-87.

The illustrations of Antonio Lopez are another interesting and beautiful aspect of the exhibit. James and Lopez collaborated in the mid 1960s when Lopez was beginning to be recognized in the art world. This collaboration has been a vital point to the survival and legacy of James's work. 106 of Lopez's illustrations were donated to the Chicago History Museum during Charles James's visit to the Chicago History Museum in 1974.

Illustration by Antonio Lopez of Charles James design

"The artist, Charley James, who chose silks or furs instead of stone or paint as his media, built sculptures and created paintings around the living flesh." - Franklin Rose, friend of Charles James

Charles James on his visit to Chicago History Museum in 1974,
the purpose of which was to examine the collection of his gowns.

*Quote from exhibit catalog.
**The exhibit catalog for Charles James: Genius Deconstructed can be purchased here.
Images from Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chicago History Museum.

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