Designer: Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978)
Medium: silk, synthetic
Credit Line: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Cornelius V. Whitney, 1953
Accession Number: 2009.300.779
While James' inspiration for this dress was likely the 1860s silhouette supported by a cage crinoline, its construction is far more complex than its precursor made of concentric steel wires connected by linen tapes. This one was built using two separate understructures of boning and stiff interfacings to give it shape and balance. The fifteen-pound skirt was engineered to rest comfortably on the hips, and, unlike the cage crinoline, to effectuate a graceful glide rather than a back and forth sway. With artistic bravado, James heightened the visual drama by separating the luminosity of ivory satin and the muted reflectivity of ivory faille on the upper and lower sections with a curvaceous black velvet swath, which further defines the serpentine effect of the four-lobed skirt. As he considered himself to be a sculptor, engineer, and architect, James thought this design his greatest achievement.
The original version was made for Austine Hearst to wear to the Eisenhower Inaugural Ball in January 1953, but it was not completed in time. She was, however, able to wear it to the coronation ball in London in June. This example is a duplicate made for the donor, Eleanor Searle Whitney, soon after the original for Mrs. Hearst was completed.