Sunday, June 8, 2014

Charles James and I

I don't usually subject you to this, but guess what I just bought at the fanciest/schmanziest store in town? And look how much I paid for it! Yes, $29. Do I need a leopard brocade bolero? No. Is it fabulous and was it a steal?

Yes... but the most interesting part...

My friend and I were on our way to the Menil Museum when we stopped in at Tootsie's. Despite its cutesie name Tootsie's is the place to shop in Houston. We visit this "museum with price tags" to ogle the Valentinos and finger The Rows. It's not possible to envy these clothes as they are way beyond reach even in dreams. The salespeople are friendly enough and aware that we are admiring but not buying.

I had wandered into a neglected corner of Special Occasion when I spotted this spotted beauty on a small rack of super markdowns. Truly I have never met a leopard I didn't love, but the unbelievable price tag had me doing a double take and a mental cartwheel. I sheepishly bought it and received a hanger and carry-bag possibly worth more than the bolero, and off we went to the Menil.

Welcome to the Menil

If you ever come to Houston you must visit the Menil. It's a stunning building and houses Domenique and John de Menil's collection of surrealist, African, Eskimo and Egyptian art. The Menils were also early benefactors of the artists making waves post WWII and commissioned this building to show their collections to the public— always for free. It's a magical place.

Domenique in a James and on a James

It should be no surprise that Domenique de Menil also championed the brilliant designer— nay couturier— Charles James. Not only did he make ball gowns and day wear for Domenique, he did the interiors of the de Menil's Philip Johnson-designed house in Houston (reportedly to Mr. Johnson's chagrin). This show is in tandem with a much larger presentation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art inaugurating the Met's Anna Wintour Costume Center. So Mr. James is very much of the moment.

James at the Met

His genius was in construction. First a sculptor, then a milliner, his sketches look like something out of DaVinci's notebooks. The gowns were amazing creations, but the daywear too speaks of sculpture and movement.

1937 puffer jacket

Brilliant, he could also be exasperating. He would not do work for you if he didn't like you. He might take a year to finish a dress then decide it wasn't right. Christian Dior is said to have credited Charles James as the inspiration for his own 1947 New Look. James was a narcissist without a head for business— a recipe for disaster that led to his being almost penniless at the time of his death at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978.

Charles James in his heyday

The Menil show does not have the scope of the Met's of course. There are far less garments (and some are a tiny bit moth-eaten). His interior design is represented only by a few pieces of furniture. Domenique comes across as a lovely woman, who must have been to put up with him. Needless to say, if you are in Houston or New York City this summer, you have something to see.

Back to my bolero. Doesn't this Charles James evening jacket from the 1930s remind you of something?


  1. I like the bolero and think you'll wear it lots. Would love to see (both) the Charles James exhibition (s). You're very of the moment too, Michelle!

  2. Chances would seem better for you to get to NYC than to Houston, but you are most seriously invited!