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?