Visual Arts

A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James: High Style Ballgowns and Furniture at The Menil Collection

A chance to get a glimpse of how the other half lives, or perhaps the top 1 percent, is available in the exhibit A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James, as The Menil Collection presents the exhibition of some of the gowns, and furniture, designed by James (1906-1978), known as "America's First Couturier".

The British-born designer created gowns for Dominique de Menil, and furniture for her home with John de Menil - this was the only residential commission for James, whose talents has been discovered by the de Menils in the 1940's, and who promoted him through gifts to museums of his work.


The works are indeed remarkable. In his furniture, James used curves instead of angles, and thus softened the look and added an inviting welcome to his furniture. A 1952 sand-colored sectional "banquette" sofa that can seat seven - or ten, if they are good friends - seems to yearn for usage. A 1952 chaise longue made of iron and upholstered in grey silk seems fluid because of its vibrant curves - and James added yellow trim to alleviate the sobriety of the grey.

A two-part sofa, 1952, is covered in light-colored wool, and the way the back penetrates the seat is, in my view, highly erotic. James is noted for his detail, and it is unlikely this was accidental.

The furniture is shown along with art hung on the wall, a wise decision permitting us to better see what it is like to be surrounded by genius. The art is well worth detailed inspection, though not discussed here.

The most gripping item in the entire exhibition is a 1929 photograph of James taken by Cecil Beaton - they had met at Harrow and were life-long friends. James is posed next to a mirror and leans upon a reflective surface, so we see a front view, a profile, and a reverse view. The eyes are heavy-lidded, the expression one of languid, pervasive sensuality, the face unquestionably that of an artist.

The list of James's dress innovations that became standards for the industry is large. Harold Koda, curator for the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, credits James with the invention of the spiral cut, the taxi dress, the figure-eight skirt, the puffer jacket and the waistband that expands after a meal. Christian Dior is reported as crediting James with inspiring the New Look.

James is most famed for his ball gowns, and those on display illuminate a range of skills, a lush use of fabrics, a scintillating choice of colors, often contrasting, and a precision of detailing, His dedication to adding interest and verve to even such mundane items as a raincoat or a business suit is also on display.

My favorite concert gown, among many, has a black velvet top, a red fabric panel in the front, flanked by ivory panels on either side, with a sliver of the red fabric inserted again on each side. James often uses a "widow's peak" downward slash to add sensuality, and does so here. The result of all this painstaking talent is a vibrant garment that catches and holds the eye, with its poise and beauty, while remaining well within the bounds of opulent good taste.

There is a quieter but stunning concert gown, gold top and ivory bottom, with the gold top descending further in the rear, to call attention to, and emphasize, the female figure, employing the same widow's peak motif. The use of this simple but dramatic design element adds both wit and sensuality.

James was noted as well for his capes, and there is a striking example, cranberry colored, shown here over a black dress, with the cranberry flecked with almost invisible white "snowflakes", and a large horn button at the top to hold it and add interest. The collar is capable of being turned up if the weather becomes more brutal.

Even the more subdued garments are never sedate. A severe dinner suit is enlivened by a silk bow. A purple business suit is worn over a beige blouse, with the contrast striking, making it suitable for a female executive, or a movie star, or even ... Dominique de Menil.

A gold outerwear garment moves a step toward a yellow color, with a vivid texture as well, and the closure at the neck area is fully exploited with elaborate detailing; this is a designer with a generous soul. His extensive use of pleats, and of inserts, is additional documentation of this generosity of spirit.

There's a lot more, but, hey, why not see for yourself?

As I was leaving the building, a woman entering, whom I didn't know but who turned out to be the artist Joan Son, insisted I accompany her to a spot about 20 feet in front of the entrance, where she clapped her hands, creating a fascinating, subtle musical whisper overhead. It might be the sound of the sea lapping against the shore,or Buddhist monks preparing for prayer. Try it, when you visit. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James, continues through September 14, at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., 713- 525-9400,

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Jim Tommaney