Chicago History Museum
Mon – Sat 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Sun 12:00 noon–5:00 p.m.
$14 Adults; $12 Seniors and Students
Children 12 and under Free
Chicago may not have the fashion pedigree of New York or Paris, but the Chicago History Museum is a treasure trove of couture. Besides the big names of Dior, Givenchy, and Versace, the Museum also has extensive holdings by Charles James, a designer who worked in Chicago as a milliner for a few years in the 1920s, before striking it big in the fashion world.
Charles James: Genius Deconstructed, a show of his work, is currently on display at the Museum. John Russick, director of curatorial affairs for the Museum, recently spoke about the collection, James’ legacy, and what viewers can expect from the show.
“James was really the first true American couturier,” Russick says. “This was a time when even being a couturier in England was a stretch, and the idea of an American house of couture was unheard of. But he makes his mark as a designer in Chicago and New York and later in London and eventually Paris. He was also working with new materials, like plastics, and incorporating them into his understructures.”
The Museum’s costume curator, Timothy Long, developed the show.
“Tim is on a leave of absence while he goes to grad school, but he had the idea for the show,” Russick says. “We have an extraordinarily large collection of couture fashion [more than 50,000 items] and Tim identified the premier collections.”
One of those was Charles James. James came to Chicago from England in the mid 1920s and lived here for a few years. Russick says that James worked at three different shops as a milliner before moving to New York in the late 1920s and developing his dressmaking talents.
“He came back to Chicago for a show of his collection at Marshall Field’s at one point, and spent time at the Museum later in life when he was donating much of the material that you’ll see in the show,” Russick says. “He talked to a curator about the pieces and why they’re important. That’s one reason we have so much information about him. He worked with Antonio Lopez, a fashion illustrator, who made wonderful sketches of his costume pieces and those are also featured in the show.”
The museum regularly incorporates clothing into its shows, and has a gallery dedicated to costumes and textiles, which is where the Charles James show will be held.
“It’s a more modest size gallery, so it’s a great size for a one designer show,” Russick says.
The show will feature 16 pieces on display, including two hats. The designs, which range from 1928 through 1958, are drawn entirely from the Museum’s collection.
“Part of the concept for the show is to walk through James’ design evolution, beginning with how he started as a milliner,” Russick says, adding that part of the show recreates James’ studio. “We look at how he thought about shape, form, texture, and cut as part of the hat making process, and how he used those techniques in dress design work.” Russick adds that the visitors will be able to have a tactile experience with fabric and see how James constructed gowns, since there are three full-scale models of gowns with cutaways to see underneath.
“It’s an opportunity for people who never get to look inside an elegant gown,” Russick says. “You’re able to understand how complex these art forms are.”
Video: CBSChicago.com contributor Ruthie Kott spoke with curator Timothy Long on October 21, the night before the exhibit opened to the public.
Charles James: Genius Deconstructed runs through April 16. For more information, visit chicagohistory.org.