Charles James in Texas, Part I

Wall of reference photos in the conservation studio at The Menil Collection, for the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James Photo by Jill Morena

Photos of James garments in the conservation studio at The Menil Collection, for the exhibition, A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Photo by Jill Morena

With all eyes and ears on the Charles James exhibition at The Costume Institute, I’d like to draw your attention to a more modestly sized, but no less intriguing and compelling, presentation of James’s work at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James (which takes its title from a quote by James’s friend, photographer Bill Cunningham, describing the transformative space between the body and the structure of James’s garments) will be on view from May 31-September 7, 2014 and will focus on the collaborations between James and the de Menils, John and Dominique.

If you’re wondering if the exhibition was planned to coincide with the Met exhibition, the answer is no–both projects were planned independently.  And yet it proved to be a happy coincidence that both exhibitions are concurrent.  For a panel discussion moderated by exhibition curator Susan Sutton, scheduled during the evening of the opening day, Costume Institute curator in charge Harold Koda shared his insights on James along with creative consultant Lady Amanda Harlech and de Menil biographer William Middleton–each bringing their own unique perspective to the unparalleled talents of James and his creative intersections with the de Menils.

For readers unfamiliar with the de Menils, this fascinating couple made an extraordinary impact on the Houston arts scene and beyond from the 1940s onward, and were instrumental in transforming Houston into an international destination for modern and contemporary art.  The de Menils and their children left the chaos of World War II Europe and eventually settled in Texas from Paris, France. Once in Houston, they continued to build an impressive collection of modern art, forged strong connections with artists, civil rights activists and politicians, and local universities, and fervently supported those who shared their progressive outlook on politics, art, and spiritualism. I won’t go into too many details of the de Menil biography here, but many overviews of their life, accomplishments, and endeavors can readily be found online (see sources below), and also through the publication, Art and Activism, which describes their many projects.

North facing facade of The Menil Collection Photo by Jill Morena

North facing facade of The Menil Collection
Photo by Jill Morena

John de Menil, the more extroverted of the couple and most focused on perfection and quality in clothing and appearance (as opposed to the more introverted and pragmatic Dominique), encouraged the couturier/client relationship between Dominique and James.  The couple recognized the innovation and unusual beauty of James’s creations and accepted and negotiated what is so often described as James’s “mercurial” or “difficult” personality, acknowledging this as part of the genius that gives birth to such meticulously considered and truly unique creations. The de Menils themselves had very strong personalities and ideas, complete dedication to the projects they pursued, and very high standards and parameters concerning quality in artistic creation.  In this sense, James had found a match in the principled and strong-willed Dominique and John de Menil.

In the 1980s, following her husband’s death in 1971, Dominique de Menil decided to create a public home for their astounding and highly personal modern art collection that had since outgrown the space of their private home.  The private house, designed and completed by architect Philip Johnson in 1950, with interiors and furniture designed by James (his only commission of this kind), is as much a part of A Thin Wall of Air as is James’s clothing. The unique colors and shapes created by James for the de Menil home are present or strongly evoked in the galleries, and this helps visitors make connections between different media as well as shared artistic and aesthetic affinities.

The small size of the exhibition (three galleries, to be discussed in my next post) is in keeping with the overall ethos of the Menil museum as Dominique de Menil envisioned it–intimate, personal spaces filled with purposeful, focused objects–“where things can be seen on multiple levels, with a relationship made between the objects and the way they are presented”(Glueck 1986: 5), where a visitor would never experience “museum fatigue.”

A few weeks before the opening, I was fortunate to be able to meet with curator Susan Sutton during the remaining days of intense preparation for the show—painting gallery walls, finishing up mannequins, planning final placements. She generously spared her time to show me a sneak peek of the gallery plans and Dominique de Menil’s garments as they were being prepared for display. It was thrilling to be able to see a row of James coats, suits, and dresses up close.  I had never seen one in person before this visit.

Charles James garments formerly worn by Dominique de Menil, in the conservation studio at the Menil Collection, being readied for display Photo by Jill Morena

Charles James-designed garments formerly owned and worn by Dominique de Menil
Photo by Jill Morena

One question I was keen to ask Sutton was how Dominique de Menil’s voice comes through the clothes, besides the fact that they are perfectly tailored to her body.  One important quality, Sutton noted, is Dominique’s modesty and practicality.  She wasn’t a “ball gown” type of woman, and noted (rightly, I agree), that in photographs de Menil seems much less comfortable in a ball gown with floor-length frothy layers than in practical yet beautiful wool suits and calf-length dresses.  Sutton and conservator Tae Smith noted that other versions of the “bustle gown” they had seen were usually strapless–James’s version for the sartorially pragmatic Dominique had shoulder straps.

Bustle gown worn by Dominique de Menil, being readied for display Photo by Jill Morena

Bustle gown worn by Dominique de Menil, being readied for display
Photo by Jill Morena

James designed for her a little over a decade (beginning in 1947), and Sutton and Smith discussed the opportunity to trace the changes in Dominique’s body and the process of becoming familiar with the particular and subtle idiosyncrasies and asymmetries of the body (that are common to us all), and which can only make themselves known to others when clothing is made specifically for a certain body over time. Although there were times when Sutton wondered, are these unusual seam placements or off-center closures due to Dominique’s body or is it James’s design? James preferred asymmetry, sometimes very subtle, in creating patterns and seams. William Middleton noted in the panel discussion that both he and Dominique had the confidence to create and wear, respectively, these off-center creations. Sutton said that when dressing the mannequins there was a tendency to want to gently coerce closures or seams and situate them to be more symmetrical or centered.  I suppose that created a bit of a mystery–where does James end and Dominique begin?

Sutton and Smith felt that the use of “floating” forms, in which the body is strongly evoked but exterior limbs or other parts of the body are not constructed or seen, fit well with a presentation of garments within a fine arts museum, with the focus primarily on the garment as an art object (The Costume Institute has also used this presentation for James’s ball gowns).

Dress forms customized for each James garment Photo by Jill Morena

Dress forms in the conservation studio, customized for each James garment
Photo by Jill Morena

This choice of display has been popular in the 21st century, particularly with the greater inclusion of exhibitions of clothing in art museums.  I often think of this particular photograph of a Rei Kawakubo gown on the webpage for the Costume Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The “floating form” has its beauty and its limitations, such as those discussed by Hayley-Jane in her recent review of the Alaia exhibition in Paris.

The absent body is an element that is unavoidable, challenging, and sometimes vexing for the costume curator, and sometimes disappointing for the museum viewer.  And yet Harold Koda expressed a very interesting observation about the “absent body” in the context of this exhibition: while he acknowledged an absence of de Menil’s specific body–or live presence–in the garment, he said, “I can still see the person.” Despite the “fine art” presentation of absent, “floating” bodies that tends to define garments as sculptures or architectural forms (and is certainly appropriate for a James creation), the presentation in the context of the Menil Collection grounded Dominique’s clothes in her individuality and the environment she and James created, whether through her physical person, her home, or through the objects that inspired them both.

An interesting thread that emerged throughout the panel discussion was the imagining of the act of wearing a James garment–entering the garment, moving in it–the exchange between the body and the person and the clothing.  This sensation is somewhat addressed in the exhibition, which I’ll discuss in the next post.  Lady Amanda Harlech expressed her desire to wear the James garments“I want to try out what [‘a thin wall of air’] feels like–what would be that dynamic?” What would it be like to experience simultaneous heaviness and lightness? Seeing the James garments up close myself, I could feel her frustration when she said, “I really wanted to try them on!”

Koda also recounted a story of a young teenager who was lucky enough to model a privately-owned James gown at the 1982 exhibition of James’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, The Genius of Charles James.  He said the young woman summed up the experience of wearing the gown as “a lesson in beauty.”  The dress, she said, is telling me how to stand and how I should walk.  This recurring emphasis on embodiment and wear throughout the panel discussion was fascinating and refreshing–this is often not a focus in studies of fashion and clothing (and of course forbidden in the museum environment)–although this is changing, and has been consistently addressed by some scholars, such as Joanne Entwistle.

There are particular, subtle touches in the exhibition presentation that attempt to address, or come somewhat close to, the feeling of tactile sensation (which, as Juliana reminded us a few weeks ago, was an important element in the The Chicago History Museum’s 2011 exhibition, Charles James: Genius Reconstructed).

To give viewers an immediate impression of the interiors of the garment, the interiors of the floating forms were lined with the colors of James’s vibrant, often unusual contrasting linings.  Satins were custom dyed to match James’s original selections.  Swatches of the dyed fabric, seen at the lower right of the leading photograph of this post, were placed on the wall for ready reference and to match thread for sewing the material to the form.  Although not a glimpse of the “original” lining (which may have been achieved through plexiglass mounts, for example), the decision to replicate the linings heightened the contrasting color, a sense of texture, and what it may feel like to wear the garment against your body. (Dominique de Menil inverted the expected conventions of dressing in more ways than one, based on what textures or sensations pleased her–she often wore her mink coat inside out).

I’ll end this post with one intriguing photograph of the exhibition galleries that invokes a Surrealist landscape–so appropriate as both James and the de Menils loved Surrealist art.  I’ll discuss my impressions of this jewel of an exhibition in next month’s post.

Installation view of A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James Photo by © Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway

Installation view of A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James
Photo by © Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway

Sources cited and further reading:

Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil (2010). Helfenstein, Josef and Schipsi, Laureen (Eds.) Houston: The Menil Collection, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Browning, Dominique (1983 April). ‘What I Admire I Must Possess’. Texas Monthly.

Entwistle, Joanne (2007). Addressing the Body. Fashion Theory: A Reader. Malcom Barnard (Ed.) London and New York: Routledge.

Glueck, Grace (1986 May 18). The De Menil Family: The Medici of Modern Art. The New York Times.

Middleton, William (2004 June 3). A House That Rattled Texas Windows. The New York Times.


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