Charles Wilson Brega James was born on July 18, 1906, in Surrey, England, to an English father and American heiress mother. In the early 1920s he moved to his mother’s hometown of Chicago and, in 1926, opened his first hat shop under the name of a schoolmate, Charles Boucheron, his father having forbid him to use the family name of James. He stayed only a short while and just two years later moved to Queens, New York where he began designing dresses for Best & Co.
By 1930 he had created his famous “Spiral Wrap,” dress—a garment that featured a spiraling zipper from neckline to hip, and the “Taxi,” which was a prelude to the wrap dress later made famous by Diane Von Furstenburg and allowed the wearer to “put it on (or take it off) in the back of a taxi”. He traveled between Chicago, New York, London, and Paris primarily funded by family and friends, surrounding himself with artistic and creative luminaries such as Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Stein and Colette. During his time in London and Paris, James developed a fascination with complex cut and seaming, establishing signature elements of styling that he would return to throughout his career.
At his first Paris showing in 1937 Paul Poiret, having glimpsed Charles’ Ribbon Cape, is reported to have exclaimed “I pass you my crown. Wear it well.” At the height of his career, James was designing lavish, sculptural, and unfathomably complex gowns for glamorous aristocrats, celebrities including Marlene Dietrich and Gypsy Rose Lee, and elite designers including Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. His most iconic dress, the Clover Leaf ball gown, weighed ten pounds and used thirty pattern pieces alone. James mixed velvet, satin, taffeta and tulle, mastering both cut and cloth, taking chances combining unique textiles and distressing materials long before his competitors. James looked upon his dresses as works of art, as did many of his customers. The most recognized design of his dressmaking career is a ballgown designed in 1953 for Austine McDonnell Hearst to wear to the Eisenhower inaugural ball. It featured a four-lobed skirt known as the “Four-Leaf Clover.” The gown merged James’ skills as an architect, sculptor, designer and engineer and was so complex in structure that in 2011 the Chicago History Museum resorted to CT-scan technology to explain how it was possible. The success of the “Four Leaf Clover” led James to design several other gowns also named after natural forms—the “Butterfly”, the “Swan”, the “Tree”, and the “Diamond”. His gowns were not only technically complex but also very time consuming to make with the inner structure being as complex as the layers upon layers of exterior tucks and folds.
Although an amazingly talented designer, he was notoriously rude and is reported to have offended more than one customer. Not only were his designs rarely delivered on time, he was an egomaniac and a perfectionist, leading clients to provide him with fake event dates just to get their gowns in time. James was also careless with money, preferring to live out of hotels and his business had enormous overhead. He reputedly spent upwards of $20,000 perfecting a single sleeve. He paid employees and vendors late, he bounced checks on a regular basis and his rent was rarely on time.
Then, in 1954 James unexpectedly married Nancy Lee Gregory, a rich Kansas divorcee. They had two children, Charles James Jr. and Louise. In 1956, after the birth of his son, he also produced a small children’s collection. Nancy’s money allowed James to keep creating, but it was still not enough to bring him out of debt. He filed lawsuit after lawsuit, against museums, department stores, magazine editors and even clients. In the end, his poor finances meant the death of both his business and his marriage as the IRS realized he had never paid withholding taxes and liquidated everything. In 1964, James took up residence at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City. He initially resided in room 624, but after some time also took over two adjacent rooms to use as his office and work space. He spent his remaining years documenting his work and working to ensure what remained ended in museum collections. James died at the age of 73 in 1978 of bronchial pneumonia in New York City.
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