A most fashionable take on New York

Walk into the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library from its 77th Street entrance, as I did one morning last week, and you’ll be immediately captivated by oversize projections of Bill Cunningham photographs.

Those images were what had drawn me to the historical society, to check out “Bill Cunningham: Facades.”

It’s a dream come true for those who love both fashion, particularly vintage dress, and New York City ­­– a stylish walk through the history of both as seen through the lens of a beloved photographer.

Cunningham, The New York Times fashion photographer particularly noted for his images that capture the most stylish on the city’s streets, here showcases an eight-year project started in the late 1960s.

It was back in 1968 that Cunningham decided to document New York’s architectural treasures by pairing them with a sampling of fashion history. He hit thrift shops, auction houses and street fairs to source the featured ensembles and went on to shoot models, most often his muse, Editta Sherman, in these period costumes set against the historical settings.

Cunningham donated 88 silver gelatin prints from the series to the historical society in 1976, and a number of those prints are combined with dozens of others in the society’s collection for this show that fills the Luman Reed Galleries on the second floor.

There are bell-shaped skirts and retro bathing costumes, extravagant furs and delicate court shoes, dramatic hats festooned with flowers and plenty of parasols. It’s a treat showcasing a project that encompassed 500 outfits and more than 1,800 locations, from the Carnegie Hall Studios to the Metropolitan Opera House, the Paris movie theater to the subways, Federal Hall to Grand Central Terminal to the Gothic Bridge in Central Park.

Beyond the visual impact, the show also reminds viewers of the time of the works’ creation, a period when the subjects of urban development and preservation were very much coming into the spotlight. They’re topics that continue to be discussed today.

In all, it’s an exhibition to be savored on many levels.

My visit to the show was also a reminder of the society’s treasures, from The DiMenna Children’s History Museum on the lower level to The Luce Center, where some 40,000 objects that span four centuries delight many a browser. And be sure to make time to catch the catch the film “New York Story,” a free 20-minute journey through the city’s history, as well as the expansive gift shop (love the fashion-themed note cards) and the chic restaurant, Caffé Storico, which was so crowded I decided to sample it on a future visit.

And I will be back.

“Bill Cunningham: Facades” continues through June 15 at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in Manhattan. For more, visit nyhistory.org.

– Mary Shustack

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