Dressed in the Best

A Greenwich Surprise at the Met



Photograph: Bradford Bachrack

When Esther Bushell and Prill Meyer walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art last May to take in the “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” exhibit, the first thing they saw was one of his stunning ball gowns from the fifties. In ivory satin with bustle-like appendages, the New York Times wrote that it had once been described as a “half-open parachute” and “a kind of walking soft sculpture.” The gown had belonged to Cynthia Cunningham, a Chicago debutante, and it was donated by — wait! — Mr. and Mrs. Robert Coulson! What? Our own Cinnie Coulson of Riverside?

Bingo. But how did it get there? And why did Charles James, who Christian Dior deemed “the greatest talent of my generation,” make it for her, anyway?

Here’s the story. Charles James was raised in England, his mother a Chicago “patrician,” his father a British army officer who was ready to disown his son for wanting to go into fashion. Thus at age nineteen James took off for Chicago and went to work for Commonwealth Edison, a company owned by his mother’s friend Samuel Insull and where Cinnie’s father worked.

With his diminutive stature and English accent, the young man was often teased, and Jim Cunningham befriended him.

Long story very short, James eventually set up a couturier shop in New York and made himself famous. But the genius designer was no genius with money, and when Cinnie’s father went to New York on business, he’d meet with James and try to sort out his financial problems, never accepting a penny for his advice.

So in return, Charles James made three dresses for Mr. Cunningham’s only daughter, Cynthia.

One was the satin ball gown on exhibit, which she wore twice—in Chicago for the Passavant Cotillion in 1951; then, as a Youth for Eisenhower volunteer, at Ike’s Inaugural Ball in 1956.

James also made her a green taffeta gown for her coming out party at home in 1951. Lastly, after she graduated from Smith and was working for CBS News in New York, Cinnie ended up with a red cocktail dress. But in the sixties when hemlines went up, she cut it off—ruining it, of course—and later threw it away.

With a new lifestyle as wife and mother in 1962, Cinnie knew she’d never wear the ball gowns again, so she donated them to the Charles James collection at the Brooklyn Museum Costume Institute, which was taken over by the MMA several years ago. It was her daughter-in-law Christine Coulson, senior advisor to the MMA director, who broke the news that one of her dresses would be in the exhibit running until August 10.

“I don’t know how much it weighs,” says Cinnie. “It’s extremely complicated and looks heavy, but it was just wonderful to walk and dance in.” An amazing digital display at the exhibit shows how the dress was constructed.

What about Charles James himself? “I remember he was small, very focused and said he loved making clothes for me because I was young and still had a good figure.

“He was a total perfectionist,” she added, noting that once he’d stayed up half the night making sure he got a single seam right. “That’s probably why he died impoverished in his sixth floor room in the Chelsea Hotel in Greenwich Village.”

And so it ended for the man who Balenciaga considered “the only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art.” But it didn’t really end, did it?

 

Greenwich Agenda

  • Exhibit Ira BARKOFF

    2014.10.11
     @ Canfin Gallery

    “The beauty of the physical world becomes a metaphor for the capacity of the spirit to reveal itself". Ira Barkoff Evocation of...

  • Nigh Season: New Paintings By David Konigsberg

    2014.09.13
     @ Kenise Barnes Fine Art

    Dates: September 13 – October 31, 2014 Opening Reception: September 13, 6 – 8:30 PM  Public Invited   NIGH...

  • Undulate: Paintings By Julie Gross and Margaret Neill

    2014.09.13
     @ Kenise Barnes Fine Art

    GALLERY II Dates: September 13 – October 31, 2014 Opening Reception: September 13, 6 – 8:30 PM Public Invited...

  • Parties at the JCC Center

    2014.09.02
     @ Stamford JCC

    A place to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. Be a guest at your own party! The JCC offers a wonderful space for you and your guests to...

  • SPLURGE Matches Scarf Donations for Cancer Patients

    2014.10.01
     @ SPLURGE

    SPLURGE and the Cancer Institute at Greenwich Hospital are partnering to bring comfort and encouragement to cancer patients.  From October...

  • Flinn Gallery Art Opening

    2014.10.30
     @ Flinn Gallery 2nd floor

    FLINN GALLERY Opening Reception 'IN FOCUS' Thursday October 30, 6 - 8pm Seven artists share their visions - Carolyn Conrad,...

  • IMAGINE CANDY- SWEET TASTINGS!!!

    2014.10.24
     @ Imagine Candy

    Imagine Candy located in Scarsdale Village- Winner of 2014 Best West of Westchester by Westchester Magazine- holds a Belgian Chocolate and Candy...

  • Flower Power

    2014.10.08
     @ SM Home Gallery

    SM Home Gallery show featuring two Greenwich based artists: Margaret Bragg and Penny Putnam. The art show runs thorough November 22nd....

  • Harvest Fair and Gift Show

    2014.11.01
     @ Second Congregational Church

    Event Will Include Hay Mazes, Games, Crafts, Food, Holiday Shopping The community is invited to a Harvest Fair and Gift Show on Saturday, Nov....

  • New Fitness Class: SalsaTone

    2014.11.01
     @ Latin Moves Dance Studio

    Starting November 1st ~ Every Saturday morning 10 to 11 AM Instructor: Melissa Lopez Start your weekend off right with this exciting cardio...

  • Lynne Scalo Design Opening

    2014.11.05

    Please join Lynne Scalo, Greenwich Magazine and athome Magazine to celebrate the Greenwich showroom opening of Lynne Scalo Design Cocktails...

  • Breast Cancer Alliance Benefit Luncheon & Fashion Show

    2014.11.06
     @ Hyatt Regency Greenwich

    Breast Cancer Alliance to Host Branching Out, Coming Together, Aspiring to a Cure 19th Annual Benefit Luncheon & Fashion Show: November 6,...

  • Free Screening of Documentary ' Children of the Inquisition'

    2014.11.06
     @ Bush-Holley House

    Join filmmaker Joseph Lovett as he presents his documentary film and multi-platform project of personal exploration and...

  • P.A.L.S. 2nd Annual Soarin' Soiree~ November 7, 2014

    2014.11.07
     @ Greenwich Country Club

    You are invited to join our State Senator, L. Scott Frantz and our First Selectman, Peter J. Tesei, for an awe-inspiring evening to benefit Patient...

  • John Hardy Event

    2014.11.08
     @ Bloomingdale's

    John Hardy One of a kind. One at a time. Each by hand. Bloomingdale's is inviting YOU to meet the head designer Guy Bedarida as he presents...

  • Olivine Gabbro Opening

    2014.11.08

    Olivine Gabbro invites you to join them for their Opening Party! DJ | Cocktails | H'Orderves | Gift Bags Made to Measure Beautifully...

  • Meet Joshua Safran, Author of "Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid"

    2014.11.11
     @ YWCA Greenwich

    Meet the author of this powerful memoir. Joshua Safran is an author, attorney, occasional rabbi, and nationally recognized advocate for...

  • Markham Roberts: Decorating the Way I See It

    2014.11.13
     @ Belle Haven Club

    Join us as Interior Designer Markham Roberts shares coveted design insights, key to creating the perfect home. The program will include...


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