You may have heard the name Charles James this year because of The Met Gala. Charles James was an American fashion designer most active in the 1940s and 1950s and is not a name you hear often today. But in his heyday he was known as an exquisite tailor and designer for some of the era’s most influential fashionistas. The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute featured his designs this year and kicked off the exhibit with their famous, star-studded gala.
Living across the country in Texas we were sad not to be able to make it to the show, but it turns out that The Menil Collection in Houston was showing a James exhibit simultaneously. So last weekend we road-tripped our way down from Austin to feast our eyes on the works of America’s first couturier.
We imagined that the show would consist of pieces borrowed from The Met exhibit but we had an even cooler surprise in store. The pieces were from Dominique de Menil’s (the museum’s co-founder) personal collection.
The exhibit was small but the connection between the pieces and the museum’s history made it all the more fascinating. Alongside exquisitely pleated and sewn dresses and coats you would see pictures of Dominique in the very same outfit.
James was also an engineer and dabbled in furniture design and interior decor. He created custom pieces for the Menil’s Houston home that were also part of the exhibit. The interesting thing was that the furniture was so modern in contrast with his clothes which were more traditional in a Victorian sort of way. The common thread, however, was their structure. It seems everything James created was a sculptural work of art and an exploration of lines. In fact, he did work in the architectural department of a company in Chicago for a while so this may have influenced his designs.
James truly was a master couturier, meaning that he created his clothes to specifically fit the bodies of his clients. You could definitely see that in the pieces on display. They had so many darts and seams that it was clear these clothes could only fit one person and they would fit her like a glove. We loved that the pictures of Dominique de Menil accompanied the exhibit because they gave life to the clothes, making the show more relatable instead of just looking at untouchable works of art. And this, after all, is what fashion is all about. The intersection of art and life.
The show runs through September 7th and is well worth a visit if you have the time!
header image – Cecil Beaton/Metropolitan Museum of Art ∆ image 1 – The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive ∆ image 2 – The Menil Collection ∆ image 3 ∆ image 4 ∆ image 5 – The Menil Collection ∆ image 6 – The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James. Photo: F. Wilbur Seiders. ∆ image 7 – The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy of Charles B. H. James and Louise D. B. James. Photo: F. Wilbur Seiders. ∆ image 8 – The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Balthazar Korab. ∆ image 9 – from The Finest Rooms in America: 50 Influential Interiors from the 18th Century to the Present