Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Bill Cunningham (1929–2016) was known for many things—his keen eye for trends on the streets of New York, his anthropological approach to his work, his omnipresent bicycle and blue jacket, his candor and generosity. But the photographer also had another less known skill: hat-making. Elizabeth Farran Tozer Curator of Costumes and Textiles Phyllis Magidson, who met Cunningham many times throughout her career, has this remembrance.
“We have two items in our collection that Bill designed and fabricated, utilizing the skills honed during his earlier career as a milliner in the 1950s. The first is a startling black-and-white feathered swan headdress made for Isabelle Eberstadt to wear to Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel (also attended by Candice Bergen and mentioned here).
“The other is a hand-held court jester-style mask he created for Mrs. Lawrence Copley Thaw to wear to a Gold and Silver ball in 1985, hosted by fashion columnist Suzy Knickerbocker (AKA Aileen Mehle). Both items were given to the Costume Collection by the original wearers, as treasured objects they felt should become part of our permanent holdings, that spoke to the fashion aesthetic of New York City.
“Bill loved feathers and working with them; he was always attracted by any flamboyant fashion element. So it was fitting that he felt drawn to Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in the late 1960s. That’s where I first encountered him, during the days when the young people who invented the city’s tribal fashion culture were drawn to the high visibility afforded by its terra cotta terrace. This was before the fountain had been restored—at that point, it was just a dry pool and people came on weekends to play music and hang out on the stairs. I remember the beat of drums, a lot of smoke and fringed jackets. Bill was there, never without a camera in his hand.
“I remember a funny moment years later. I was at a press opening at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, standing with [head curator] Andrew Bolton in the Blumenthal sculpture court. All of a sudden I spotted Bill crouching down, photographing Andrew’s ankle. Andrew was in tip-to-toe Thom Browne, with ankle-revealing trouser hems and stocking-less wing-tipped shoes, complete with their Browne signature red, white and black grosgrain tabs at the heel back. Bill always liked the big picture as well as the details—the things that would reveal something special about the wearer.
“I saw him frequently in my work with the Museum of the City of New York. In 1984 we were doing fieldwork for an exhibition on young New York designers called Cream of the Crop. We went to every fashion show that year to see exactly what these designer’s collections looked like. Bill was always there, with the camera. He just moved from one show to the next on his bicycle—it was probably the only way he could efficiently get around Seventh Avenue.
“A few years ago, he came in to warm up following a snowstorm and ensuing Central Park photo shoot. I took him around Gilded New York and he wanted to know about everything. He had so many questions mixed with little personal recollections. There wasn’t anything that he wasn’t interested in, regardless of how famous or infamous. And he had no attitude whatsoever—he was the most approachable person imaginable, and a true humanist.
“When I heard on Sunday morning [June 26th] that someone had died who always had a camera in his hand, even before I heard the name I knew. Bill was never a sad person so I’ll never feel sadness. He was always smiling. And he was one of the people who made New York New York.”