A recent New York Times article on designer children's wear described the 1956 fashion show that launched Charles James's line of children's clothing. While fashion editors enjoyed cookies and sherry, James (wearing a purple tweed suit) narrated the presentation of tiny jackets, capes, shirts, pants and sun suits, all designed for children 0-18 months.1 For those familiar with the extreme shape of a Charles James gown, the idea of James designing children's clothing might seem incongruous, if not downright strange. Well-established in both the United States and Europe, James designed ball gowns, cocktail dresses, evening dresses and coats in the painstaking tradition of haute couture. His clients included Millicent Rogers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Babe Paley and other prominent women of style and wealth. What prompted Charles James to design children's clothing?
According to Charles James scholar Elizabeth Ann Coleman, the reason is simple: Charles Jr, James's first child, was born in the spring of 1956. James might have been anticipating fatherhood as early as 1954, the year he designed maternity ensembles for retailer Lane Bryant. Using stiff taffeta, James designed a black tunic dress and a yellow, gray and white trouser ensemble for expectant mothers. The interplay between fit and flare that defines so many of James's garments was easily translated into maternity clothing. The flame red Charles James maternity evening coat pictured in a 1956 issue of Life magazine is nearly identical to his black velvet Balloon evening coat.
Though James's designs for adult women usually prohibited expressive mobility, James didn't impose the same expectations on children. Made from soft cotton textiles, the cut of his children's wear responded to the needs of an active baby or toddler. Sleeves were designed for freedom of movement, while pants featured extra gussets, allowing room for a diaper. All designs were fitted on Charles James Jr. Like the jumper pictured above, many of the designs featured buttons for both function and decoration. The curved drop-front panel is typical of the line, which featured rounded silhouettes and incorporated curved seams and curved panels of fabric for shaping.
Created in collaboration with the Alexis Corporation, these were not haute couture garments for children. James designed prototype garments which were then patterned and put into mass production by the manufacturer. By the end of 1956, the line retailed in about 30 shops nationwide, with each small garment bearing a label that read "Designed by Charles James" or "Shaped by Charles James." In 1957, the line received royal recognition when Princess Grace of Monaco (aka Grace Kelly) visited Charles James's New York salon. Expecting her first child, she purchased an array of baby sun suits, shirts, and shorts in a variety of fabrics.
1 The fashion show is described in detail in the October 20, 1956 issue of The New Yorker.