Menil Collection Exhibit 'A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James' Opens & Other Musings on Fashion

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Photo Courtesy of The Menil Collection
The Menil Collection opened a new exhibit this weekend dedicated to one America's greatest fashion minds. A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James is an homage to the work of couturier Charles James and one of his most supportive patrons John and Dominique de Menil. On display are pieces from Dominique de Menil's personal collection of James fashion and decor created by James for the de Menil's home in Houston.

The exhibit's opening weekend was dotted with events celebrating the work of James and the relationship he had with one of Houston's most beloved families. I had the honor of attending an incredibly informative panel discussion moderated by exhibit curator Susan Sutton and including distinguished panelists Harold Koda curator of the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, de Menil biographer William Middleton and Lady Amanda Harlech, writer and past consultant to John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld.

Held in The Menil Collection lobby and filled to brim with eager James lovers, the discussion spanned James' early life, his impact on the industry, the artist/patron relationship he had with the de Menils, and the de Menil's perspective on his work.


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The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James Photo: F. Wilbur Seiders
Dominique de Menil in a Charles James gown with [and seated on] a sofa of his design, 1951

Each panelists spoke frankly, but lovingly, about James' life, talent, creations, and prickly disposition, something even the de Menils acknowledge in letters quoted by Middleton. As the life and art of this genius designer was beautifully laid out in pictures and words, I, as an audience member, couldn't help but wonder if this same level of genius could blossom in today's fashion industry.

Were James and his contemporary's living in a perfect storm of commerce, art, and culture never to be seen again, or are there standard bearers in fashion right now, as Koda put it, serving as artists working in the medium of fashion?

Panelists noted that the age of James was the bridge between two major eras in history, pre and post World War I. Koda, in his brief presentation, made the point that societal upheaval caused by the war may have contributed to the acceptance of new perspectives presented by these designers. But I think it was more than just a sign of the times.


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The Menil Collection

1515 Sul Ross, Houston, TX

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