Bill Cunningham was a relic of another time in New York fashion, not one to peacock himself despite being a fixture within the industry community. It's a trait so rare these days, as social media has turned everyone into a shameless self promoter.
Still, Cunningham was ahead of his time. In 1967, London photographer David Montgomery gave Cunningham his first camera, an Olympus PEN-D, telling him to "get rid of your pen and notepad, that's passé. Use [this camera] like your notebook." It was prescient, 50 years before the age of Instagram and long ahead of the dawn of street style as we know it.
Cunningham's recount of that moment, as well as other mementos, ephemerals, and photographs are on display at the New York Historical Society through Sept. 9, in a new exhibition celebrating the late-New Yorker's life.
The exhibition's highlights include the bicycle he rode around the city with (displayed inside a case along with the New York City Street sign "Bill Cunningham Corner" that was temporarily installed in Midtown Manhattan after his death). Cunningham's scrapbooks and selections from "Facades," his eight-year photo project that documented NYC architecture and fashion history, are also on display.
"I think Bill was interested in everything — he was an autodidact interested in history, in art, in people — and for him, clothing was a reflection of culture," Curator of Decorative Arts for the New York Historical Society Debra Schmidt Back told Fashionista. "I think that's just the way his mind worked. It was a natural thing for him to take pictures of people and interpret them for all of us."
The small but hearty exhibition in one dimly lit rectangular room on the second floor of the museum includes recognizable pieces (like Cunningham's blue French workman's jacket) and other items that might surprise a casual Styles Section reader. A brief history of how he came to own the "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" pages in the New York Times is outlined on one wall; it all started in 1978, after he'd been working for Women's Wear Daily, and he'd unknowingly snapped a photo of actress Greta Garbo.
There are images of Cunningham sewing: In addition to working at Chez Ninon, which dressed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Cunningham produced his own clothing, usually relying on feathers as a primary material. Though Cunningham's scrapbooks are locked beneath the glass shadow boxes, museum-goers can flip through them virtually on a kiosk within the exhibit.
The standout items for any fashion lover will likely be the silver gelatin print photographs, which Cunningham first gifted the New York Historical Society in 1976, and evoke the kind of mid-century glamour that seem to be locked away in publishers' archives.
At the exhibition's reception, there were plenty of dandy men and women in classic shift dresses, a real uptown crowd with dashes of downtown flair. Of course, many wore intricate hats (more Royal Wedding than Yankees game) as tribute to Cunningham, who worked as a milliner before turning to photography. Some of his hats and a sign for his hat shop "William J," which he ran in the early 1960s in Southampton, Long Island, are also displayed.
"I see that we're still dressing for Bill," said Louise Mirrer, president and chief executive of the New York Historical Society, addressing a room within the museum filled with a few hundred people. "We miss Bill tremendously but we're so glad we have such great friends that were his friends."
One such friend, Tziporah Salamon, or "Tzippy," was dressed in a full chartreuse look, accented with an orange, wooden necklace and a lime green beret — someone you’d fully expect to catch Cunningham's eye on a street corner. (Indeed, the pair met outside Bergdorf Goodman decades ago.)
"Bill used to sneak me into the shows in Paris," Salamon, who calls herself one of Cunningham's muses, said. "Once, he kept two tickets in his pocket and insisted I go with him, that he'd get me in to see Karl. He was good to his friends that way."
It seemed if you had any sense of personal — truly personal, not trend-prescribed — style, Cunningham shot you, and you were there to pay your respects. (That included the man in a beige vest, crisp trousers and wingtip dress shoes who sold the museum's commemorative handbags with lucite handles and Cunningham’s pages printed around them.)
"Bill always had his camera out, he always shot me," Salamon said. "He might not have used it, but he was always looking."