A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James

May 31 – Sep 7, 2014
Main Building

Charles James (1906–1978) is considered by many to be America’s first couturier. Starting out as a milliner, by the 1940s he had established himself as a premier fashion designer with an elite clientele that included Millicent Rogers and Gloria Swanson. John and Dominique de Menil were introduced to James during that decade, and Dominique de Menil began to buy pieces from him soon thereafter. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James explores the work of the designer in relation to two of his most committed patrons and clients.

A conversation between wardrobe and interior, this exhibition presents a selection of evening gowns, suits, coats, and daywear from Dominique de Menil’s personal collection, complemented by furniture James designed for the de Menils and wall colors that evoke his decoration of their home. Several of James’s sketches for furniture and sculpture reveal his working process, and a carefully curated selection of works from the Menil Collection reflects James’s and the de Menils’ mutual affinity for the surreal.

As a couturier, James was known for his virtuosic design and construction. His clothes fuse a Victorian aesthetic with forms derived from nature, and are defined by dramatic curves and metamorphic extensions from the body. The silhouettes are further accentuated by unusual color choices that heighten their sculptural dimension. For James, the true possibilities of design lay not in the human form or in the material, but in the space between the body and fabric, which he described as a “wall of air” and which fashion photographer and close friend Bill Cunningham later called “a thin wall of air.” Such a design theory connects James’s fashions to sculpture and architecture, where the body is transformed by the engineered structures surrounding it.

As the relationship deepened, John and Dominique de Menil became great champions of James, commissioning both furniture and couture, collecting his sketches, donating examples of his work to museums, and hiring him to dress the interior of their home, his only residential commission. After the completion of their Philip Johnson-designed home in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston in 1950, the couple hired James to dress the interior.

James’s style was the very inverse of Johnson’s minimal, sparse modernity. He introduced felt and velvet covered walls in butterscotch and fuchsia; hand mixed paint colors in mauve, aqua, grey, and blue; and installed sweeping curves through custom furniture and other carefully selected items. As in his fashion designs, the juxtapositions often have a surreal undertone that dovetailed with the de Menils’ artistic interests and collection. Further, James’s intervention in the de Menil house results in a multitude of rich tensions as the structures of international modernism interact with the voluptuous fluidity of James’s interior design.

This exhibition is generously supported by The Brown Foundation, Inc./Allison Sarofim; David and Anne Kirkland; Anne and Bill Stewart; Nina and Michael Zilkha; Accenture; Lazard Frères & Co. LLC; Diane and Mike Cannon; Sara Paschall Dodd; Peter J. Fluor and K.C. Weiner; Gensler; Russell Reynolds; Tootsies; Lynn Wyatt; Jerry Jeanmard and Cliff Helmcamp; Carol and Dan Price; the City of Houston; and an anonymous donor.

Photos: Fredrik Nilsen Studio and Paul Hester

Susan Sutton, exhibition curator, moderates a panel discussion on couturier Charles James with Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Lady Amanda Harlech, creative consultant for Chanel, Paris; and William Middleton, biographer of Dominique and John de Menil. The panel discussion program opens the exhibition A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James (May 31–September 7, 2014).