One can hardly discuss creating formalwear without discussing Charles James. Mr. James was born in Great Britain, but worked as a designer in the US. He created both childrenswear, daywear for women, and gorgeous evening gowns. He was eccentric and idiosyncratic, at best. Although he was usually very much in need of money, he was known to turn down work because he didn’t like the appearance of his possible client. He might as well have been Blanche from “Streetcar Named Desire” stating that he “always relied upon the kindness of strangers.” It wasn’t about work for him. He considered himself more a sculptor or architect then a clothing designer. He work was impeccable, complicated and achingly beautiful. Society women of the 30’s through the 50’s sought him out because of this genius.
One look at his patterns reveals the intricacy of his designs. Skirts seemed to fold over and into themselves. He often said that it was all about letting the grain to the work. The folds and graceful curves of the dresses were created by draping the fabric over the dress form, and allowing the lengthwise, crosswise and bias to form them. Mr. James was known to spend days working tirelessly on the bodice of a dress. He was unable to stop until he finished the drape. One famous example of this was his “Ribbon” dress, so named because the seamlines of the bodice and skirts were cut so thinly, they c ould have been made of ribbons.
In order to make the dresses hang properly, Mr. James built all the undergarments to support the dresses. This includes slips and petticoats. Many of his dresses included tulle underskirts, with wide horsehair braid in the hemlines to support the fullness of the skirts. The bodices were boned to create the ultra-feminine look that was popular in the Post-War period. He also used hip padding to create the fullness across the hip area that he desired.
What can we learn about formal gown construction from Mr. James? By studying his draping and construction methods, we can learn how to make both the fabric and the body appear to the pleasing proportions that a bride wants for her special day. We can learn how to build a gown that although heavy, is almost weightless to wear. We can learn to be better at our craft.