Inside 1950s Couture: Charles James


A few weeks ago, I posted on my experience looking inside 1950s Dior pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This week, I want to draw your attention to a designer who was even more interested in re-shaping the female form than Dior in the 1950s: Charles James. As I’ve mentioned, In the Spring of 2003, I was fortunate to have a costume history class with Professor Elizabeth Morano, author of Sonia Delaunay: Art into Fashion. On one particularly unique day, we got to look inside the ‘four-leaf-clover’ dress – along with a few other James pieces.

"Four-Leaf Clover," Charles James, 1953, C.I.53.73.

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953

While indeed the outside of this gown is phenomenally beautiful – especially the naturalistic and floral reference in the skirt, juxtaposed with the architectural lines of the bodice – it is the inside that reveals the true genius of Charles James. Below, you can see the photos we took of the inside construction of the skirt.

Handily enough, the MMA has several drawings depicting the exact construction and materials used to create this tour de force of design and fashionable architecture. Not only is the bodice heavily boned, but the skirt is as well – providing a heavily contrived and immobile piece. I distinctly remember wondering aloud with classmates about the practicality of wearing the dress – how could the wearer get to the party without sitting down in a car?

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953 (also above image)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art now houses two of these gowns, in addition to a slightly different and more elaborate version (as well as accompanying sketches). Visit their collection database to see them, here. Ohio State University also has a version of this gown worn by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst. Gayle Strege of Ohio State University did a marvelous research project on the construction and history of a ‘Four Leaf Clover” dress between 2003 and 2007. Her work focused on exploring, in detail, the interior and it was incorporated into the 2007 Charles James Exhibition at Kent state. (Until last week, much of her research was available online but was removed to make way for Kent State Museum’s new website).

I asked Strege to talk to me briefly about her research. Here’s what she had to say:

The thing that intrigued me the most about looking inside the gown was its understructure and discovering the overlapping layers of 4-5” wide horsehair braid (used in millinery) used to create the stiffness required to maintain the shape of the understructure. So many different types of stiffening materials were used to create the armature upon which James draped his satins, velvets and taffetas, including the braid, boning, horsehair canvas and non-woven interfacing.

Gina Bianco, a textile conservator in NYC, spent a lot of time with our James dress and noted several alterations to it as well as interesting construction details. She definitely saw James the milliner in this dress—especially in his use of materials to create his very 3 dimensional structures—like you would a hat. She likened the bodice to the crown of a hat and the skirt as a very wide brim—held out and reinforced with various stiffening materials.

Below are two images from Strege’s work with the dress that was at Ohio State the Brooklyn Museum** (do click on them to enlarge for details):

The other gowns that the class looked at that day revealed James’ consistency in form and use of materials – and also on his steadfast desire to remake a woman into an idealized silhouette. As you can see from the photo below, the gowns retain their shape on the hanger – acting more like sculpture than flat textiles.

Ball Gown, Charles James, 1949, Met, CI, 57.31.1.

The Museum at F.I.T. also has a number of gowns by Charles James gowns and the American High Style exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum currently has a large selection of Charles James on view.

(The above photo, and many more of the exhibits are available at

*”Four-Leaf Clover,” Charles James, 1953, C.I.53.73.

**Correction from Gayle Strege: On the photos: “they are not of our dress at OSU, but of the one at the Brooklyn Museum. I was researching it with reproducing the understructure in mind since OSU’s dress arrived here with the understructure in pieces, with other pieces missing. The great thing about it is that it was Austine Hearst’s dress, and the first one of this type James did.”

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs were taken by the author.

More Information:
Charles James (Fashion Memoire)

High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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  • Mai Vu July 14, 2010 11.10 pm

    While studying at FIT I had the chance to take a quick peek inside a James’ gown from the museum collection and I agree… it is the delectable part of his work! Many thanks for your wonderful images.

  • Anonymous July 15, 2010 06.00 am

    Great blog, these dresses are great. Thanks

  • ryan January 02, 2011 03.01 pm

    wonderful information!! thank you!

  • Marisa Tomei wears vintage Charles James to the Oscars – 560 Parsons School of Fashion
    March 3, 2011 - 9:45 am

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