Charles James (1906-1978) was born in Britain, but moved to Chicago in the early 1920s. In 1924 he set up a millinery business under the name Charles Boucheron. He moved to New York in 1928, and expanded into women’s custom clothing, as well as continuing in hat making.
During the 1930s, James worked in both Europe and the US, creating clothes for American stores such as Lord and Taylor in New York, and fabric for French textile maker Colcombet. He also did custom designs in London and Paris under the name E. Haweis James.
In 1940, James reopened his New York couture business. He also took a position at Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics maker, where he was to establish a custom clothing department. He designed and produced one collection in 1945 before he was fired. He then reopened his own couture house.
In the mid 1950s he entered into a venture with Seventh Avenue manufacturer Samuel Winston. James designed clothes under the label “Samuel Winston by Charles James” but the arrangement ended when James accused the firm of using his designs in their other divisions. He took Samuel Winston to court, but lost the case, which left him in deep financial trouble.
Saying he had had enough of “fashion” James closed the couture house in 1958. He did continue to design – coats for William Popper, maternity clothes for Lane Bryant, and clothes for Korvettes. And in the late 1960s he worked briefly with Halston, but as in all his other collaborations, that too ended badly. He died in 1978 after spending his last years sorting and organizing his papers – an effort to preserve a legacy that, at the time, had been quite forgotten.
Today Charles James’s lavish ball gowns are considered to be the perfect marriage of fashion and art. They are like sculpture, with line and proportion being precisely engineered.
“I spent my life making fashion an art form.” Charles James, 1978
Written by Lizzie Bramlett, fuzzylizzie.com