Charles James at the Menil Museum

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The recently-closed Charles James exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum in New York isn’t the only examination of his work this year – A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James will be on display at the Menil Museum in Houston through September 7. While the Menil Museum exhibit closes this weekend, it’s worth a look if you’re in the area. And fortunately, a beautiful book accompanied the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit – it’s well worth reading if you’re interested in knowing more about Charles James.

While far smaller and different in scope than the Met’s exhibit, the Houston presentation is charming and very personal. In addition to creating clothing for Mrs. de Menil, James designed furniture and interiors for the couple – wealthy French art collectors and patrons of the arts who spent much of their time in Houston (and built the well-respected museum bearing their name and housing their collections).

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Mrs. de Menil’s garments are beautifully presented (her personal dress form from 1950 – red! – is also part of the exhibit). Carefully-shaped forms hold them in place, and while the temptation is still there to peel back the layers and look inside, it’s still possible to get reasonably close to them.

I’m afraid I’ve always let James’s difficult life – both personal and professional – cloud my view of him – that and his relatively small output of garments has kept me, til now, from appreciating him fully.

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He truly saw things in a very unique way – his clothing designs are as much architecture and sculpture as they are things to wear – and it’s with his careful seams and painstakingly manipulated layers of fabric that he created and shaped his magic.

As I looked at the garments, I was so tempted by the idea of Charles James patterns… it would probably be far more trouble than it’s worth, but it certainly would give a clear and studied window into just how beautifully his garments are conceived and constructed.

Photo Credits (Left to Right, from Top): Dress Form 2: 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 Photo: Adam Baker. Mauve Wool Suit: Charles James, Wool Suit with Fur Lining and Silk Blouse, ca. 1950, The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James. Photo: Adam Baker. Velvet Bustle Dress: Charles James, Bustle Evening Dress, ca. 1948. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James. Photo: Adam Baker. Camel Day Coat: Charles James, Wool Day Coat, 1947. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James. Photo: Adam Baker. Satin Evening Coat: Charles James, Satin Evening Coat, ca. 1948-1951. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James. Photo: Adam Baker. DdM_James_Sofa_1 and DdM_James_Sofa_2: 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 of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James. Photo: F. Wilbur Seiders