Review: The De Menils' Favorite Designer Gets His Close-Up

Couturier Charles James's stunning dresses and furniture go on display at the Menil Collection.

By Joseph Campana June 5, 2014

Dominique de Menil in a Charles James gown with [and seated on] a sofa of his design, 1951. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy Charles B.H. James and Louise D.B. James

A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Thru Sept 7
Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross St

A pink wall? Surely not at the Menil Collection, I thought to myself. And yet there it was, along with a lush red concert gown, two smart black hats, and a sofa contoured like a lush pair of lips (above). All thanks to Charles James.

Fashion’s been all the rage in museums for some time now. In just the last few years I’ve seen startling exhibitions featuring Alexander McQueen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Jean Paul Gaultier at the Dallas Museum of Art. Before that I saw the 2006 Paris collections on parade at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve never seen so much Chanel up close, which is the thrill of such shows.

With A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James, the Menil Collection enters this rich company. Organized by assistant curator Susan Sutton, A Thin Wall of Air will be on view through September 7.

Charles James, a fashion designer and interior decorator with deep ties to the de Menils, is enjoying quite a renaissance this summer with this exhibition and Charles James: Beyond Fashion, the inaugural exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s freshly renovated Costume Institute. But there’s something special about A Thin Wall of Air, which brings something of the de Menils’ house into Renzo Piano’s austere halls.

Charles James, Bustle Evening Dress, ca. 1948. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of B.H. James and Louise D.B. James.

Image: Adam Baker

In addition to being an expert milliner and a highly sought-after couturier, James was the creative mind behind the interior design of the de Menils’ home, which Philip Johnson built. James beat out Mies van der Rohe for the interior decorating job, but perhaps that’s no surprise. Menil director Josef Helfenstein referred to James as a “constant colleague and thinking companion” for the de Menils.

The two exhibition halls pop with saturated blue and fuchsia. As I turned a corner, I realized that this was not my first experience with James. It was in a wonderful exhibition, Body in Fragments, by former Menil curator Kristina Van Dyke, that I first saw Dominique de Menil’s dress form with “Charles James” and “Ideal Standard” blazoned across it (see below right). I remember feeling a sudden and unexpected intimacy—there it was! A stand-in for the body of the visionary behind the Menil Collection. And here it is again, practically the avatar of the exhibition.

It felt equally auspicious to have a now-rare encounter at an opening reception for A Thin Wall of Air with Van Dyke herself, currently the director of the Pulitzer Collection in St. Louis. She looked like she just walked off a Milan runway, and if I had any expertise in fashion, which I definitely do not, I could tell you the designer she was wearing. But as I was admiring Van Dyke’s garb, she was admiring the colorful walls. “You’d never know how colorful the Menil house is from the museum itself,” she observed. Suddenly those saturated walls seemed to fit right in.

Charles James, Dress Form for Dominique de Menil, ca. 1950. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James.

Image: Adam Baker

You don’t have to be an habitué of the Paris runways to appreciate the intricate work of these clothes, the voluptuous geometry and precision, which is especially visible in a museum. Whereas the McQueen exhibition at the Met was like entering a McQueen-themed rock concert, here James’s creations reveal negative space where arms or necks might normally be. I bumped into Museum of Fine Arts Houston director Gary Tinterow, who pointed out the dresses’ intricate details and surrealist touches, which helps explain why these works are paired with the paintings of Max Ernst and Victor Brauner. 

Each gown is a show-stopper in a different way. The 1949 red concert gown that opens the exhibition grabs your attention with voluminous folds, while the intricacy of the other dresses requires a look or two at least. I found myself especially drawn to James’s sketches and watercolors. “Drawing for Flexible Dress Form” (1964) washes vivid purples and blues across the page, making the iconic dress form seem like an alien creature of elegant if impossible proportions. There’s also an arresting image of James taken by photographer Cecil Beaton (below left). In the photo, two reflective surfaces split Beaton’s subject into three images. Another photo captures Christophe de Menil, John and Dominique’s daughter, in a Charles James creation, heading to a ball.

Cecil Beaton, Portrait of Charles James, 1929. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James.

A Thin Wall of Air has a deeply commemorative feeling. As much as this is a show dedicated to the genius of James, it is also part of an ongoing conversation about the legacy of John and Dominique de Menil. How long will interest in the cult of the de Menils capture the attention of museumgoers increasingly removed from their living memory?

Hard to say. Still, some things never go out of style.

[Full disclosure: Joseph Campana's partner works at the Menil Collection.]

[Editor's note: This story has been revised to reflect the fact that it was not Charles James but Dominique de Menil who designed the ottoman in the show, and that there is no work by René Magritte in the show.]

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