An example of one of James's Four Leaf Clover dresses.

Angelina Jolie, Marisa Tomei, and a cadre of 20th-century society fixtures all have chosen dresses by Charles James for attention-getting appearances. Now the late designer gets his turn in the spotlight with “Charles James: Genius Deconstructed,” an exhibition at the Chicago History Museum opening October 22 (through April 16, 2012). Costume curator Timothy Long drew on the museum’s own collection for the show’s 15 ensembles, even re-creating four of them in order to take apart every layer and give viewers a feel for their elaborate constructions. Standouts include the designer’s Thirties bias-cut Taxi dress, whose ergonomic fit allowed women to slip into and out of a cab with easy elegance, and his Swan style, which was comprised of 30 layers. James’s unparalleled skill in making such potentially heavy frocks feel airy is something Long experienced firsthand by trying on the reproductions. “James always tried on his pieces,” he explains. “You’re wearing a piece of art, and you can feel that when you get inside it.”

Charles James at work in his studio.

From left: Corbis; courtesy of Chicago History Museum.