FLOATING ON AIR

A look at vintage couturier Charles James’ career and his ties to Texas debuts at Houston’s Menil Collection in May, as our very own fashionfile Casey Richter learns.  

Photography courtesy of the Menil Collection

Sometimes the past informs the future. As seen in the new exhibit, A Thin Wall of Air, displayed at the Menil Collection of Houston, which will portray the beautiful style of one of America’s first couturiers, Charles James beginning in late May. It coincides with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’ salute to James as the theme for it’s annual exhibit and ball commencing on May 5th, too.

Less enlightened fashion aficionados may not instantly recognize the beacon of genius that James was to Mid-Century high fashion. Born in 1906, close to the fin de siècle of the Victorian era, he started off as a milliner, and grew to be a premier fashion designer for an elite clientele. He was known for fusing a “Victorian aesthetic with forms derived from nature” in his work, and his unusually colored pieces were often defined by “dramatic curves and metamorphic extensions from the body,” according to the Menil Collection. He also believed that the true design lay in the space between the body and the fabric of clothing, which Bill Cunningham, fashion photographer and close friend, described as “a thin wall of air.”

Charles James’ ties to Texas style run deep. Charles James was introduced to Houstonians John and Dominique de Menil in the mid to late 1940’s, and they immediately fell in love with his vast talents and became patrons of his. The couple began to commission furniture and couture, donate samples of his work to museums, collect his sketches, and hired him as an interior designer. His style utilized bright colors and fabrics in their 1950-built Houston home.

A Thin Wall of Air displays the relationship of Charles James and the de Menils in relation to clothing, interior design, sketches, furniture and more. The exhibition, displayed May 31st to September 7th, 2014, contains priceless information into Charles James’ work and presents exquisite pieces of both fashion and design and is curated by Susan Sutton.