A model wears the Charles James gown
pictured in adjacent sketches.
A CT scan shows
the construction of a
Charles James gown.
As Coco Chanel
career as a hat
maker in Paris,
did the same in
Cecil Beaton photographed these Charles James gowns for Vogue in 1948.
Timothy Long, curator of the Chicago History Museum’s Costume Department, with gowns from the exhibit “Charles James: Genius Deconstructed”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to label Charles James as the 20th-century father of American couture. While he is recognized for his sweeping gowns and reputation as a fine couturier from New York to Paris, James started his career as a milliner right here in the Great American City. To celebrate that heritage, on October 22 the Chicago History Museum (CHM) opens its “Charles James: Genius Deconstructed” exhibit. Researched and curated by the museum’s curator of costume, Timothy Long, the show dives into James’ life and relationship to Chicago, and then literally deconstructs some of his most famous gowns.
“I spent a few years nestled deep inside these garments,” Long says. “And sure enough, there were construction techniques and design elements I had never seen before in all my years studying historic dress.” And that’s saying something: As curator of one of the largest collections of historical dress in the world (second only to that of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), Long spends his days surrounded by clothing and ornaments of generations past to better understand the way Chicagoans lived and what shapes our lives now.
After a college internship at CHM 15 years ago turned into a full-time job, which led to being assistant curator and then, five years ago, curator, Long spends his days immersed in fashion. On a typical day at the office, “I go straight down into storage,” he says. Although he has an official desk at the museum, it’s rare to find him sitting there. “I want to put my hands on these pieces, smell them, really explore all of the collections.” The museum is currently in possession of 50,000 items dating back to the 1720s.
“I spend most of my time looking through James’ or Dior’s [pieces], Charles Frederick Worth’s—we have some of the earliest haute couture that exists in this collection.” But it’s not just old storied gowns and tiaras that capture Long’s attention. “We also have everyday pieces from Chicago’s history: a baker’s uniform from the 1880’s, a nurse’s uniform from 1910, when women were actually corseted while tending the sick. These are stories of my city, and it’s really fun to be down there.” Long’s passion for this undeniably chic version of anthropology is put to good use in the new James exhibit. Acting as detective, Long researched the history of the museum’s Charles James pieces—the events at which the gowns were worn, who wore them and even receipts and correspondence exchanged between James and the gowns’ owners.
Born to a Chicago socialite and a British military officer, James opened his first millinery shop in Chicago in 1926 and maintained a lifelong connection with the city and his most devoted patrons, who resided here long after he moved on to New York and Paris. Remarkably, he was self-trained in hat making and fashion design. At the exhibit, CT scans of the garments on display expose the inner construction techniques, allowing visitors to see that many of his dresses are designed in the figure of a hat, with the crown as the bodice and skirt as the brim. There are also replicas of his most famous garments that can be touched and examined up close.
“[The exhibit] will look at all the reasons why this man is such a prominent force in the fashion industry 40 years after his death,” says Long. “James is often regarded as an architect of fashion and a genius…. The gravity-defying elements of his gowns are what keep people referring to and using his work as inspiration.”
We won’t give everything away, but the Chicagocentric look at James and his life’s work as the premier American fashion icon is like nothing seen before. In fact, next up for Long is a trip to England to present his extraordinary and abundant findings at the Costume Symposium in London this fall. “I’m eager now to build off the research we started here and compare some of the construction techniques of James’ clothing that he made for Chicago women to other women, to other designs, to see if the designs varied.” We can’t wait to see either. “Charles James: Genius Deconstructed” runs through April 16, 2012, at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., 312-642-4600