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. As the relationship deepened, the couple 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. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James explores the work of the designer in relation to two of his most committed patrons and clients.
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 later fashion photographer and close friend Bill Cunningham 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.
After the completion of their Philip Johnson-designed home in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston in 1950, John and Dominique de Menil 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 home results in a multitude of rich tensions as the structures of international modernism interact with the voluptuous fluidity of James’s interior design.
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 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 reflect James and the de Menils’ mutual affinity for the surreal.