Hats off to Bill

Anna Wintour, Vogue’s no-nonsense editor-in-chief, famously said, “We all get dressed for Bill.”

She’s referring to Bill Cunningham, the beloved New York City icon and fashion photographer for The New York Times.

Cunningham (1929-2016) was as noted for his candid shots as for the trusty bicycle that he rode to capture the subjects of his signature work. His groundbreaking fashion photography saw him not only chronicling the city streets but also its most glittering society events and fashion shows. That and his lifetime of work are now being honored with an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in Manhattan.

Of course, his bike is on display as part of “Celebrating Bill Cunningham,” mounted in honor of the society’s recent acquisition of objects, personal correspondence, ephemera and photographs. All, press materials note, “reflect the life and work of Bill Cunningham, one of the late 20th century’s most influential trend-spotters and style authorities.”

Filling the fittingly intimate, second-floor Pam & Scott Schafler Gallery, the show is a gem spotlighting the low-key — though notably good-humored — personality synonymous with his trademark blue French workman’s jacket.

It’s a more personal exploration of Boston-born Cunningham, who was also showcased here in 2014’s “Bill Cunningham’s Facades.” That memorable exhibition was devoted to his eight-year project started in the late 1960s that documented New York’s architectural treasures by pairing them with fashions sourced from thrift shops, auction houses and street fairs. It was a tour-de-force that in the end employed some 500 outfits and more than 1,800 locations and became the subject of a 1978 book. 

Savinien Caracostea, “Bill Cunningham (part of the Friends Series),” December 2014.

In addition, his spirit was more than evident at the historical society in this past autumn’s “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall: Photographs by Editta Sherman,” an exploration of and tribute to Cunningham’s longtime friend and artistic collaborator.

“Celebrating Bill Cunningham” touches on Cunningham’s start as a milliner and his own William J. designs and follows his story through his decades as a photojournalist, one who was often spotted on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street capturing the fashions — and personalities — that caught his attention.

Here, we see his Nikon camera and glimpse into his process, with contact sheets and notations, along with work from the “Facades” project.

But perhaps the most enjoyable moments come when pausing to sit for an original short film created specifically for this exhibition.

“A Visit with Bill Cunningham” by Josef Astor features unseen footage from his love letter to a New York of another era, “Lost Bohemia.” The poignant 2010 documentary artfully traces the demise of the homes and studios — the very lifeblood — of Cunningham and the other residents of the onetime artists’ enclave above Carnegie Hall.

In this new short, Cunningham, reflects on change, specifically how the sudden popularity of wigs killed the millinery business but led him in a new direction.

In a few words that seem to sum up his outlook, we not only see his character and what contributed to his success but also gain a valuable lesson.

As Cunningham said, “You gotta go with history, dearie.”

“Celebrating Bill Cunningham,” curated by Debra Schmidt Bach, the society’s curator of decorative arts, continues through Sept. 9 at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, at 170 Central Park West in Manhattan. For more, visit nyhistory.org.

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