“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

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