On the streets of Manhattan, he was a familiar sight, his slim, lithe figure gliding skilfully amidst the raucous city traffic on his battered bike; trusty Nikon camera dangling from his neck. Bill Cunningham was an amazingly influential style authority and trend-spotter in the late 20th century. He was a beloved figure on the city’s streets, and in 2009, Cunningham was designated a New York living landmark. He captured the fashion icons of the day; attended museum openings and benefit dinners, in order to document the latest craze. When Bill Cunningham noted an item of fashion interest, headlines followed. (Photo above: Bill Cunningham on his bike – photographing Tziporah Salamon, 2011 Photo courtesy Antonio Alvarez)
Celebrating Bill Cunningham at the New York Historical Society is a wonderful tribute to his eclectic creativity, with a selection of objects, personal correspondence, photographs and ephemera that reflect his life and work. His career began as a milliner with stylish “Willian J” hats, as he described his label. On display at the museum is a beach hat – which even Cunningham described as “a bit outrageous.” His photography stint started in the 1960’s and for fifty years, he photographed and catalogued what New Yorkers wore on the streets. His favourite vantage point was 57th Street and Fifth Avenue – where gilded fashion emporiums Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany and Bonwit Teller (until the latter was demolished) were certain to attract the “fashionistas” of the era, and Bill could capture the moment with his Nikon.
The New York Historical Society has acquired his iconic Nikon camera; the French workers jacket that Cunningham adored for its numerous pockets; and one of his many bicycles. It is estimated that he owned at least thirty bikes over the years; frequently the bikes were stolen.
A transplanted Bostonian, Cunningham evolved into the quintessential New Yorker, who was passionate about the city, art and politics. This touching tribute to Cunningham is a reminder of what a revolutionary he was at the time…and how much he is missed. Celebrating Bill Cunningham New York Historical Society Museum & Library through 9th September. www.nyhistory.org JG