Charles James's gowns, inside and out 

The Chicago History Museum exhibits work by America's first high-fashion designer

click to enlarge The Swan by Charles James
  • The Swan by Charles James

The fashion world took note when actress Marisa Tomei attended the 2011 Academy Awards dressed in a gown designed by Charles James, the mid-20th-century haute couturier who got his sartorial start making hats in Chicago. Tomei's appearance, wrote one blogger, "was both a delight to the senses and a shock to the system for those who feel that garments of such exquisite workmanship and intelligent design that have passed the half century mark should be preserved and not promenaded."

James is regarded as America's first high-fashion designer, but he thought of himself as more sculptor than dressmaker. The ball gowns for which he's best known are elaborate affairs so intricately engineered—padded, wired, corseted—that they hold their shape with or without a body inside them. His "Swan" dress comprises more than 30 layers of fabric and features both innovations and anachronisms, including a Victorian-era bustle.

That and 14 other original James creations are on display at "Charles James: Genius Deconstructed," a retrospective that also features sketches by James's collaborator Antonio Lopez, a peek inside the architecture of some gowns, and four reproductions that viewers are allowed to touch. A costume ball held in conjunction with the show includes dinner and cocktails, a fashion auction, and an exhibit preview. It's as high-class as James's dresses, with tickets starting at $500.

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