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

  • Information Fair

    2014.09.16
     @ YMCA

    Our Annual Information Fair - This event showcases non profits , community businesses, schools and  services in the Greenwich...

  • 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...

  • Greenwich Harbor Sunset Wine Cruise | Greenwich, CT

    2014.06.05
     @ Delamar Hotel Dock

    The boat "Prudence" departs from the Delamar Hotel Dock on 500 Steamboat Rd. All the wine is sponsored through VALS with food...

  • Laurel House Family Seminar Series

    2014.09.18
     @ Laurel House

    Thursday evenings, September 18, October 2, 16, 30, 6:30-8:00 pm Join us Thursday evenings for this four part Family Seminar Series as...

  • Isaia Fall Trunk Show

    2014.09.19
     @ Richards

  • The Many Faces of Multi Media

    2014.09.20
     @ Meli-Melo of Greenwich

    Dr. Julia Trebing, Director Creative Therapies in Stamford, CT exhibits her paintings at Meli-Melo Creperie & Juice Bar  during Sept...

  • SoulCycle GWCH for Make-A-Wish CT

    2014.09.20
     @ SoulCycle

    Make-A-Wish Connecticut is thrilled to be partnering with SoulCycle's Greenwich location for a charity ride on Saturday, September 20th!...

  • Wall Street Tennis Challenge

    2014.09.20
     @ Greenwich Country Club

    The goal of The Wall Street Tennis Challenge is to support the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation’s efforts while spreading awareness...

  • Nam Cho Trunk Show

    2014.09.20
     @ Richards

  • Arts & Crafts on Bedford

    2014.09.20
     @ Bedford Street

    Shop at over 100 craft and artisan boutiques on Bedford Street, which will be closed to traffic for the weekend. Dine in our extended sidewalk...

  • Puttin’ On The Dog Festival

    2014.09.21
     @ Roger Sherman Baldwin Park

    Puttin’ On The Dog Festival Greenwich, Connecticut the place to be on September 21st for dogs and their owners...

  • Candy Fairies Book Reading

    2014.09.21
     @ Imagine Candy

    SCARSDALE, NY, Imagine Candy brings the acclaimed children's author Helen Perelman, the writer of the wickedly sweet Candy Fairies book...

  • Chizi's Tale Book Launch Party

    2014.09.21
     @ Tudor Investment Campus

    You and your family are invited to join Diane's Books of Greenwich and TUSK USA to celebrate the launch of Chizi's Tale: The True Story...

  • Chizi's Tale Book Launch Party

    2014.09.21
     @ Tudor Investment Campus

    You and your family are invited to join Diane's Books of Greenwich and TUSK USA to celebrate the launch of Chizi's Tale: The True Story...

  • SM&NC Farm Market

    2014.06.15
     @ Stamford Museum & Nature Center

    Sundays, June 15 – October 5, 10am – 2pm We're thrilled to bring back the SM&NC Farm Market — now on Sundays!...

  • "Israel and the U.S."

    2014.09.22
     @ New Canaan Library

    The public is invited to attend a World Affairs Forum Great Decisions event featuring Seth Anziska, Columbia University. Mr. Anziska will speak...


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