Mystery Monday: Charles James, American Couturier

Readers, thank you for your patience this past week. Here is the solution to last Monday’s mystery:

Happy New Year, Readers!

There were some great guesses this week, including the correct answer: Charles James.

"Diamond" flat skirt pattern, 1952. From the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 2009.300.2810a–j. Gift of Mrs. John de Menil, 1957.

James, Charles. “Diamond” flat skirt pattern, 1952. From the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 2009.300.2810a–j. Gift of Mrs. John de Menil, 1957.

Historians have described Charles James (1906 – 1978) as an artist, a sculptor, and the only true American couturier, and his beautiful designs are veritable inspirations for this high praise. His understanding of complex pattern making and draping is evident in the perfect posture of his highly structured and carefully draped gowns, jackets and skirts.

Some of James’ most memorable designs, his evening gowns from the 1940s and 1950s, began as a distinctive infrastructure that James surrounded by elegantly draped fabrics. This practice of embellishing a rigid, sculpted form was a comfortable design process for James, who worked as a milliner in Chicago under the name Charles Boucheron before moving to New York, where he ventured into dress design with the skills he had crafted while folding and shaping hats.

James, Charles. Ivory silk satin evening dress with boning, c. 1952. From The Museum at FIT, object number 70.1.1.

James, Charles. Ivory silk satin evening dress with boning, c. 1952. From The Museum at FIT, object number 70.1.1.

The image for this week’s mystery is a pattern for a more humble garment, a wool skirt, but James’ skilled pattern elevates the skirt above its role as day wear. The clever darting and seaming, the subtle shaping of the waistband, and the multifaceted flare at the hem transform this skirt into a tribute to a woman in motion. The seam lines clearly accentuate the female shape, celebrating the hips and rear, and the flared hem and the darts subtly reference the stripes and fins on a sports car while facilitating mobility and providing comfort. Though demure in fabric and hue, this skirt is a masterpiece, both concealing and revealing the shape of the confident female found within.

James, Charles. Wool skirt manufactured by William Popper, 1952. Part of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 2009.300.821.

James, Charles. “Diamond” wool skirt manufactured by William Popper, 1952. Part of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 2009.300.821.

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Interested in learning more about Charles James’ design process? The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a wonderful collection of James’ work. According to the museum, the collection includes “sewn muslins and flat patterns that represent James’ design process from original concept to the finished garment…. In some cases, the garments are accompanied by materials that represent all of James’ design phases-two flat patterns (paper and muslin), and two sewn muslins (half and full).” Photos of some of these items are available online, while others may be viewed upon request.

As we begin 2013, let’s celebrate inspiration and innovation, the old and the new, and the past and the future. And another year of mysteries!

Have a mystery you’d like to submit? Contact us! We’d love to hear from you.

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