Charles James, American, 1906-1978

"Petal" Ball Gown, 1951

Silk velvet, silk faille and silk satin

Gift of Mrs. Eleanor Searle Whitney McCollum     1975.c.221

“What to wear to a ball (perhaps the Fan Ball, November 29) this night blooming rose, one of the most beautiful in Charles James’s new black and white evening collection.  The bodice a long curving stem of black velvet above petals of black satin above 25 yards of blowing, billowing white taffeta.  The cuttings that went into the flowering: any number of petticoats, each cut to a different shape.”

-Vogue, November 1, 1951

Although James created coats, dresses, suits, hats, and children's clothing, his extravagant, sculptural ball gowns are his best known achievements. James believed that his garments were works of art and that their ultimate destination should be Museum collections.  With this in mind he meticulously documented every one of his 200 original designs—the dates they were made, who ordered them, what fabrics they were made in and how much they cost. By the time he died in 1978, James clothes were in the permanent collections of 31 major museums internationally.  The Brooklyn Museum is repository to the largest single collection--180 pieces donated by his most important client, Standard Oil heiress, Millicent Rogers.  When ordering a garment from James, Rogers had a duplicate made for donation to the Museum’s collection.  

The "Petal" dress was originally designed for Rogers in 1949.  James did not present it in a line for other customers until his 1951 "black and white" collection.  James fondness for flowers was evident—the “Black Tulip” and the “Rose” dresses are other creations.  They were always sturdy varieties that transformed the woman into full bloom.  This dress is one of fifteen known versions of the “Petal” dress.  It was custom-made for Mrs. Eleanor Searle Whitney McCollum for $850 in 1951.  At the time, she was married to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and had appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Mrs. Whitney McCollum led a remarkable life traveling the world as a spiritual singer.   She is remembered for her generous charity, spiritual leadership and elegant style. James distinguished clientele were the legendary tastemakers of their time. To be dressed by James marked a woman as one of adventuresome taste and financial security. 

Like many of his ball gowns, this dress is constructed with a boned bodice and an elaborate skirt over a foundation of organdy and nylon horsehair underskirts that imposed James' original sculptural shapes onto a woman's body. His virtuosity with fabric—color, fiber, texture and a comprehension of what it could do remains unparalleled.  James was a sculptor and fabric was his medium. He did extensive research on the proportions of clothing in Museum collections to see how they changed over a 150 year period. Afterward, James spent a month in a sculptor’s studio working in clay to create a new dressmaker’s form with revolutionary proportions—a backward sloping upper torso with a lowered back waistline—that exaggerated the curving lines of the female figure. Although many of the ball gowns were heavy with large amounts of fabric, clients said they were always comfortable to wear because they were so well balanced.


James was a skillful engineer who might spend, hours, days and weeks on a single garment. His tyrannical quest for perfection sometimes led him to take a dress apart and refit it even if it was for an event that evening leaving the client hysterical and without a dress! Yet, they all called him a genius. In 1975 Charles James received the only Guggenheim fellowship ever awarded to a fashion designer. 

Click photo to go to next item