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“Charles James: Genius Deconstructed” at the Chicago History Museum

The history museum peels back the layers of America’s first couturier.

 (Photograph: Courtesy Chicago History Museum)
Photograph: Courtesy Chicago History Museum

As a milliner, James used plastic�a relatively new material�to shape hats. Relocating to New York in 1928, James excelled by creating wearable but heavily layered gowns (this 1957 satin �Tree� dress, on display, weighs 13 pounds) with innovative techniques, including heat-set plastic used as a boning material.

 (Photograph: Courtesy of Chicago History Museum)
Photograph: Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

For the first time, the museum utilized a CT scanner to explore objects in its collection. Borrowing the technology from the Field Museum (which used it to investigate mummies), the museum scanned four of James�s gowns, including the �Tree� dress. Scans showed remnants of the making process, including pins left inside.

 (Photograph: Courtesy of Chicago History Museum)
Photograph: Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

For the exhibit, curator Tim Long produced elaborate reproductions that museumgoers can touch. To re-create the flurry of undergarments, Long climbed inside the dresses and inspected their pattern pieces, which, in the case of this �Tree� dress underskirt, number nearly 100.

Around 1925, Charles James—a feisty young man—was sent from England to his mother’s birthplace, Chicago. His parents lined up a job with energy magnate Samuel Insull, but wild child James decided to open a hat store at 1209 North State Street. This began James’s relationship with Chicago. The museum would come to own 18 pieces by James, who became widely influential in women’s fashion. “The exhibit breaks down his design method to understand why he’s unique and still relevant today,” says John Russick, the Chicago History Museum’s director of curatorial affairs.

“Charles James: Genius Deconstructed” runs through April 15 at Chicago History Museum.