Bill Cunningham’s Tales of Old NYC

The Daily Beast
Bill Cunningham’s Tales of Old NYC
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Bill Cunningham’s Tales of Old NYC

He is the chronicler of a colorful fashion-loving world, famously traversing Manhattan on his bicycle. Bill Cunningham, the 85-year-old father of street-style photography, has captivated readers for decades with influential columns for The New York Times. His approach is simple—he captures New York’s pretty, handsome and generally striking pedestrians exhibiting the trends of the moment.

But his love for the city and its ever-evolving looks began long before his reputation as on of the most influential authorities of style and society.

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In 1968, Cunningham began an eight-year project to capture the architecture of neglected neighborhoods and pair them with the remarkable fashions that defined their societies. The series, titled Bill Cunningham: Facades, on display at the New York Historical Society, narrates a cultural transition throughout the decades, highlighting the mutual impact of architecture and fashion.

“In a way, he was capturing and preserving the streetscape in these images,” the exhibition curator, Valerie Paley, told The Daily Beast. “But he was also showing a gritty and sully city in a beautiful way.”

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When Cunningham began the project New York was experiencing a tough financial crisis, with many of Manhattan’s momentous buildings facing reevaluation and possible destruction of. A historical preservation campaign began, spearheaded by former first lady Jacqueline Onassis, when word got out that legendary buildings such as Penn Station were being considered. Cunningham’s locations paired the iconic with the seemingly ordinary, reflecting on preservation as a more democratic resolution to the decaying city’s problems.

At this point, Cunningham’s resume included only a few short-term jobs. He had a somewhat successful career as a hat designer, catching the attention of Times fashion editor, Virginia Pope, and a handful of celebrities and socialites. John Fairchild, who was running Women’s Wear Daily, had asked Cunningham to write his first column, a job he accepted without prior writing experience. Unfortunately, the partnership quickly ended.

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Under the direction to “write whatever you see,” Cunningham did just that. While in Paris, he was captivated by the ultra-modern fashions of French designer André Courrèges, who had left Balenciaga to start his own collection. “When I saw his first show,” Cunningham wrote in the New York Times, “I thought, Well, this is it.”

“But John killed my story. He said, 'No, no, Saint Laurent is the one.' And that was it for me. When they wouldn't publish the Courrèges article the way I saw it, I left.”

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Just a couple years later, while Cunningham was working at The Chicago Tribune’s New York office, photographer David Montgomery gave him a camera. His advice: “Use it like a notebook.” By the early 70s, he began taking his infamous street-style photos for the New York Times.

For his 1968 project, enlisting the help of friend and fellow photographer Editta Sherman who models for the photos, Cunningham scouted out locations and rummaged through thrift stores in search of the perfect antique fashions—finding the most brilliant and ornate outfits from every era from the late eighteenth century onward, often incorporating personally designed hats that echoed the curves and forms of the architecture.

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The most remarkable, and oldest find, appears with St. Paul’s Chapel, one of the oldest structures in New York and the only pre-Revolutionary building. In the photo, Sherman stands, dressed in an elaborate embroidered velvet frock coat and vest from the late eighteenth century.

Not only does Cunningham capture the essence of the architecture and fashion of the era in these first photos, but they also relay a sense of a city prior to its appearance today of glass skyscraper-opolis. The backdrops seem, at times, suburban as Watson poses in front of the then modest Victorian-era townhomes of Henderson Place.

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Moving into the twentieth century, Cunningham turned his eye to the lives of the financial elite. He paired costumes by prominent society figures, such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art—and Mrs. J.P. Morgan Jr., with their family’s extravagant architecture, capturing how the buildings of the era were influencing fashion.

The photos continue through the turbulent years of World War I, showcasing the less formal straight shapes and rising hemlines of post-war fashion. Cunningham juxtaposes Sherman in sleek gowns, ornate hats, and dancing skirts with the Art Deco façade of the Empire State Building and the interior of the 21 Club, an upscale speakeasy during Prohibition.

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The exhibition concludes with photos from contemporary times, Cunningham beginning to use high-fashion runway as a source of inspiration for the designs. In one photo, Sherman wears a tall, rounded fur hat, inspired by Givenchy, that mimics the shape of the Guggenheim Museum in the background.

According to Paley, the majority of the buildings Cunningham captured could have easily not survived the 20th century. Whether or not the photographer’s images made a difference, they now serve as a beautiful reminder of the necessity of preservation.

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“It’s extraordinary to look at these images,” Paley said, “not only as New Yorkers to take in sites that look very familiar, but also as historians to look back on a pivotal time in which Bill Cunningham created them.”

‘Bill Cunningham: Façades’ is on display at the New York Historical Society through June 15.

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