“I would kill to get my hands on that dress.”
It’s a common reaction inside fashion exhibits at the Chicago History Museum, which boasts more than 50,000 pieces in its costume collection—one of the largest in the world. But normally, it’s hard to get a sense of how women felt wearing the fabulous fashions on display.
The museum’s latest fashion exhibit, “Charles James: Genius Deconstructed,” attempts to change that, with touchable displays that reproduce the interior structures of sumptuous and sculptural dresses by James, an Anglo-American designer who earned his reputation in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Considered America’s first couturier, James started out as a milliner in Chicago.
“We wanted to give viewers a fresh perspective on the legacy of Charles James by deconstructing his garments layer by layer to show the scientific precision and innovative techniques James incorporated into his designs, revealing his true genius,” curator Timothy Long wrote of the exhibit.
Go Ahead, Touch Me!
In the exhibit, it’s almost as if you’re in the designer’s studio, exploring his works in progress. A touchable display on plastic boning shows how James achieved the four-petal shape of the skirt on his “Clover” evening dresses. Another interactive display shows how he distributed the weight in the “Tree” gown from the ’50s—a 20-layer, 13-pound garment—so that the dress wouldn’t be burdensome to the wearer.
The Fashion Designer as Artist
James, who designed for many prominent Chicagoans as well as Hearsts, Whitneys and Paleys, thought of himself as an artist, says John Russick, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs. And the displays give insight into his artistic vision, Russick says: “He was master of construction. It was an architectural process, and an engineering feat. He was really calculating and very detail-oriented. It’s almost as if he was thinking in 3-D all the time.” As a result of James’ painstaking approach, his clients often waited a long time for their commissions.
The exhibit also features CT scans—performed at Children’s Memorial Hospital—of James’ dresses, revealing their complicated inner skeletons. A scan of the “Swan” ball gown, a piece made up of more than 30 layers and nearly 100 pattern pieces, revealed metal stays sewn into the bodice. The scans also revealed pins still stuck inside the dress, more than 50 years later.
A Structured Legacy
Despite his relatively short career, James had an impact on many designers, such as Anna Sui, Giles Deacon, Ralph Rucci and Alexander McQueen. Christian Dior credited him as an inspiration for his 1947 “New Look.” Some of the designs in the exhibit can even be recognized in contemporary fashion: Russick points out that Angelina Jolie wore a dress in “The Tourist” that looks just like James’ “Day Dress” from 1951. “His designs are still being worn,” Russick says, “and they’re not ‘retro.’ ”
“Charles James: Genius Deconstructed” opens Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011 and runs through Monday, April 16, 2012. Admission is $14 for adults with audio tour, $12 for seniors and students with audio tour, and free for children 12 and younger. For more information, call 312-642-4600 or visit chicagohistory.org.