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A Lesson in Beauty

America's forgotten fashion designer brings glamour back in major NY and Houston exhibitions

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Charles James ballgowns, 1948
Charles James ballgowns, 1948. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast
Dominique de Menil in Charles James gown on Lips sofa
Dominique de Menil in a Charles James gown seated on a sofa of his design, 1951. Photo by F. Wilbur Seiders, The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston Courtesy of Charles James, Jr. and Louise James
Charles James ball gown, 1949-50
Charles James ball gown, 1949-50. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Charles James with model, 1948
Charles James and model. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast
Charles James clover leaf evening dress, 1953
Charles James clover leaf evening gown, 1953. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth Fairall, 1953 (C.I.53.73)
Charles James butterfly gown, 1954
Charles James butterfly gown, 1954. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton
Charles James, 1936
Charles James, 1936. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's
Charles James evening gown, 1948
Charles James evening gown, 1948. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, 1949
Charles James ballgowns, 1948
Dominique de Menil in Charles James gown on Lips sofa
Charles James ball gown, 1949-50
Charles James with model, 1948
Charles James clover leaf evening dress, 1953
Charles James butterfly gown, 1954
Charles James, 1936
Charles James evening gown, 1948

More than 30 years ago, at a retrospective of the legendary 20th-century Anglo-American fashion designer Charles James in Brooklyn, a small fashion show was held where teenagers who were tiny enough to fit into his clothes modeled several pieces.

Asked what it was like to wear a Charles James design, one model remarked, "It feels like a lesson in beauty."

 Asked what it was like to wear a Charles James design, one model remarked, "It feels like a lesson in beauty." 

Nowadays, the clothes are too valuable and fragile for anyone to try on, but the designs of America's most influential — and probably least known — fashion designer are sure to captivate the fashion world with blockbuster exhibitions in Houston and New York. His work will be highlighted in an exhibit Charles James: Beyond Fashion opening May 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and will be theme of the Costume Institute Gala, which annually draws just about every top name in fashion and entertainment, on May 5.

In Houston, a selection of James-designed evening gowns, suits, coats and daywear from Dominique de Menil's personal collection will be featured in an exhibition titled A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James, which opens May 31 at the Menil Collection. Among the breathtaking items James created for de Menil were a red fleece cape with dolman sleeves, a chocolate silk Infanta cocktail dress with a full skirt and a cutout neckline and an opera coat made from saffron damask silk and lined in ice blue satin. It will be first time that de Menil's clothing will be shown in her museum.

Houston patrons

John and Dominique de Menil were patrons of James, commissioning both furniture and couture, collecting his sketches and donating examples of his work to museums. In 1950, they hired him to decorate the interior of their Philip Johnson-designed home, his only residential commission.

James, whose style was the opposite of Johnson's minimalist modern architecture, introduced felt and velvet covered walls in butterscotch and fuchsia, hand-mixed paint colors in mauve, aqua, grey, and blue, and curved custom furniture, such as the legendary sofa shaped like a pair of lips.

The Houston exhibition will feature de Menil's clothing in a tableau of furniture James designed for the de Menils with wall colors that evoke their River Oaks home.

The Houston exhibition will feature de Menil's clothing in a tableau of furniture James designed for the de Menils with wall colors that evoke their River Oaks home. Several of James’s sketches for furniture and sculpture will reveal his working process, and a carefully curated selection of items reflect James and the de Menils’ mutual affinity for the surreal.

"James is perhaps best remembered for his sophisticated palate and for his sculptural bravura in creating dresses," Costume Institute curator Harold Koda said at a fashion week press conference in New York. "He is generally acknowledged to be one of a handful of designers who absolutely transformed the métier of fashion design. Christian Dior is said to have credited James with inspiring his New Look and Balenciaga said that 'James is not just America's greatest couturier, he is simply the world's best.' "

Koda ticked off a long list of James' innovations, among them the figurine skirt, the puffer jacket and the taxi dress, a wraparound outfit that was so much easier to wear than current styles of the time that a woman could slip it on in a taxi. He also was a proponent of the low-cut bra and the zipper — making a dress sexier and more practical —and reconfigured the dress form for a more modern woman. 

"In addition, he was an early proponent of licensing," Koda said. "He has the reputation of being a bad businessman, but I think that was more of his temperament because he was a brilliant marketer. Unfortunately there was contradiction between the way that he thought and the way that he acted."

New York exhibition

Koda is hoping the New York exhibition will reintroduce James to the public with 75 of his most notable designs from the 1920s until his death in 1978. Among the highlights are the glamorous ball gowns he created in the 1940s and '50s. Made of yards of silk, velvet or taffeta in jewel tone colors, they were known for the distinctive silhouette, with "a structured bodice, a plunging neckline, an hourglass waist, and a full skirt that billowed to the floor like expensive silk curtains," according to a description in Harper's Bazaar.

 "Every woman of great sensibility from Gloria Vanderbilt to Babe Paley had one or several of his gowns. Even his peers of the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli and (Coco) Chanel, wore James. Given this it's really time to address the lack of public knowlege of this man," Koda said.

"Every woman of great sensibility from Gloria Vanderbilt to Babe Paley had one or several of his gowns. Even his peers of the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli and (Coco) Chanel, wore James."

  James' most popular gown was the Swan, with 30 layers of tulle and a "tie-back bustle support" that created an extra-poufy rear. He also drew attention for the Butterfly, a silk and faille column gown with wings of tulle, and the Four-Leaf Clover, made for Austine Hearst, with a four-quadrant skirt constructed from 30 pattern pieces. James considered it his crowning achievement.

At the recent press preview, model Elettra Wiedemann wore a reproduction of  the Clover gown. Koda said the original was reputed to weigh 50 pounds, but officials found it actually weighed 10 pounds — still a substantial amount to wear while dancing. James constructed it with two reverse pleats on either side of the skirt so it would easily move like a figure skater's much lighter outfit. "It's so counterintuitive, so we created a spin model," Koda explained. "We now have the opportunity to see the gown in motion."

The New York exhibit will also include video animations by exhibition designers from the New York firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro to illustrate James' techniques. Part of the exhibition will take place in the The Costume Institute's new Anna Wintour Costume Center, named for the Vogue editor who has been a major patron of the institute and the gala. In contrast to last year's Costume Institute Gala, which had a punk theme, attendees will likely wear current top designers' interpretations of the big ball gowns that represent James' vision, making for what is sure to be fashion's most glamorous evening ever.

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