Edit ModuleShow Tags

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?

Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module

 

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Greenwich Agenda

  • 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...

  • Flinn Gallery Art Opening

    2014.10.30
     @ Flinn Gallery 2nd floor

    "IN FOCUS" OPENING RECEPTION -  Thursday October 30, 2014 6-8pm. "IN FOCUS"features seven artists' visions in...

  • Antarctica: Photographs by Diane Tuft

    2014.10.28
     @ Bruce Museum

    October 28, 2014 - February 1, 2015 Selections from Gondwana, Images of an Ancient Land Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, CT...

  • Exhibition: Northern Baroque Splendor

    2014.09.20
     @ Bruce Museum

    Northern Baroque Splendor. The HOHENBUCHAU COLLECTION from: LIECHTENSTEIN. The Princely Collections, Vienna September 20, 2014 - April 12, 2015...

  • Exhibition: Native American Pottery from the Bruce Museum Collection

    2014.11.22
     @ Bruce Museum

      Generously underwritten by Gabelli Funds and The Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund Over the years, the Bruce Museum has...

  • The Best of 2014: Cecile Chong, David, Ruth Hiller, David Licata, Loanne Mattera, Jill Parisi, Kristen Thiele

    2014.11.08
     @ Kenise Barnes Fine Art

    GALLERY I Dates: November 8 – December 22, 2014     Opening Reception: November 8, 6:30 – 8:00 PM Public Invited THE BEST OF 2014:  Cecile...

  • 6th Annual Greenwich Reindeer Festival & Santa’s Workshop

    2014.11.28

    Santa and his LIVE reindeer - Dancer, Dasher, Prancer and Blitzen, are coming back to town for the 6th Annual Greenwich Reindeer Festival &...

  • 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...

  • Christmas Tree and Wreath Sale for Charity

    2014.11.29
     @ First Congregational Church of Greenwich

    O, Christmas Tree; O Christmas Tree Buy your tree and help those in need this Christmas! It’s time for the annual Christmas Tree and...

  • "Paper & Stone" an exhibition by Ellen Gordon & Sary Backer at the Loft Artists Gallery

    2014.11.01
     @ Loft Artists Gallery

    Paper and Stone” An exhibition by Sary Backer & Ellen Gordon November 1 - November 30th Artists’ reception: November 8th from 4 – 6 PM...

  • Family Gallery Tours

    2014.10.26
     @ Bruce Museum

    Designed for children ages 6-10 and their families, these tours will provide an interactive, discussion-based tour of the museum’s current...

  • Tuesday Toddler Tours

    2014.11.04
     @ Bruce Museum

    Children ages 3-5 and their adult caregivers are encouraged to come explore the Museum’s collections and exhibitions through picture books...

  • Greenwich Gives

    2014.12.02
     @ Greenwich Avenue

    Looking for a fun way to complete your holiday shopping and give back to your community?    On December 2, 2014, local non-profits...

  • Breast Cancer Alliance Holiday Gift Boutique

    2014.12.02
     @ Greenwich Country Club

    More than 40 skilled artisans, designers, and purveyors of finely crafted goods and provisions will showcase their wares at the Breast Cancer...

  • Holiday WOW At Your Front Door!

    2014.12.02
     @ Garden Education Center of Greenwich

    Beautify your entrance way with luscious holiday evergreens, berries, pinecones and more, sure to last throughout the dreary winter...

  • Exercise as Treatment for Chronic Pain

    2014.12.02
     @ Noble Conference Room Greenwich Hospital

    Presented by Greenwich Hospital and Orthopaedic & Neurosurgery Specialists Exercise as Treatment for Chronic Pain Tuesday, 12/2/14 at...

  • Israeli Film Series | Bethlehem

    2014.12.02
     @ Stamford JCC

    Join us throughout the year for award-winning films direct from Israel that will show you Israel through the lens of a movie camera. Following each...

  • Holiday Della Robbia Wreath

    2014.12.03
     @ Garden Education Center of Greenwich

    Create a lavishly decorated live wreath for your home this holiday season with Maureen FitzPatrick. Using a variety of real...

  • Picture This with Authors Lisa Barr & Gabrielle Selz

    2014.12.03
     @ The Drawing Room

    Authors Lisa Barr & Gabrielle Selz Bring Their Stories of Passion, Chaos & Intrigue from the World of Modern Art to Greenwich...

  • Holiday Tea

    2014.12.04
     @ Garden Education Center of Greenwich

    Back by popular demand!  An elegant multigenerational holiday tea party featuring a delightful afternoon tea, delicacies and a gift...


Show More...
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular Articles

  1. Greenwich Hospital Venezia Gala
    Greenwich Country Club
  2. BCA Annual Luncheon + Fashion Show
    Hyatt Regency Greenwich
  3. Watch Your Back, Lulu
    YOGASMOGA’s got a new active wear line that’s coming in hot
  4. Greenwich Happy Hours
    6 places to go in Greenwich for Happy Hour
  5. Greenwich Restaurant Week Opening Night Kick-off Party
    Miller Motorcars