Bill Cunningham’s “Facades” of Fashion and Architecture

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Bill Cunningham’s Facades

Bill Cunningham has said, undoubtedly more than once, that “the fashion show has always been on the street.” It’s a sentiment with which this columnist completely agrees. Indeed, another way of substantiating Cunningham’s observation is the reason for this column existing.

If you don’t know who Bill Cunningham, now 85, is and haven’t seen Bill Cunningham New York, the 2010 documentary about him, you aren’t aware he’s been Schwinning around New York City for decades photographing everyman and everywoman in what they’re wearing. His point: to chronicle what constitutes genuine fashion, to chronicle what might be called practical fashion.

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If you don’t know who Cunningham is, you also wouldn’t know that in 1978 he published a book of photographs called Facades in which he promulgated another theory of his: that fashions in clothes inevitably reflect fashions in architecture and vice versa. And you wouldn’t know that an exhibition based on that book was recently mounted at the New York Historical Society (NYHS) and, more’s the pity, has only just closed.

The good news, at least for this writer, is that he got there before the show shuttered and had a close gander at the gelatin silver prints the NYHS owns, along with reproductions of other photographs Cunningham took of his model, Editta Sherman, another photographer and neighbor of his when they both lived in the Carnegie Hall studios before everyone there was kicked out.

The good news for anyone reading this is that the book is available for $55 plus tax. The NYHS has a stack of them (they cost $8.95 in 1978) that were made available at the NYHS shop by Sherman’s daughter. At least, that’s what a salesman in the shop said, remarking that the museum price is a bargain, since the book is going for more online.

I urge all readers to get hold of this collector’s item, because it’s a true fascinator. Wait a sec. A fascinator is today’s name for a hat that Cunningham calls a “doll-size hat” in several photographs of them to demonstrate the late ‘30s/early ‘40s fashions. Kate Middleton, for one, popularizes them now.

facades2Then let’s just say Facades (both book and show) makes a strong case for Cunningham’s clothes-architecture connection. By the time I left the exhibition, I had the same experience many of us have on exiting significant exhibitions. Our view of the world is substantially changed. That is, until the next effective exhibition changes it again.

When I’d finished looking at the photographs of Sherman and was back on the streets of Manhattan, I continued noticing what Cunningham insisted on: people in cities inevitably seen in the context of buildings. I kept seeing passersby that way. Don’t we all, without thinking about it?

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For the most part, the passersby didn’t match the buildings they were passing; in their contemporary clothes, they contrasted with them. Maybe they would have matched more had I watched the passersby passing newly constructed contemporary architecture. Still, it wasn’t people moving or standing motionless in a vacuum. It was people and their clothes as an inextricable facet of the cityscape, of the architecture-scape.

Cunningham’s conceit was more controlled, needless to say. By the time he’d finished photographing Sherman—a woman of a certain age when Cunningham was snapping her (1968-76) but game to be anything from austere to kittenish—he’d collected over 500 outfits in which he could clothe her. He’d combined her with something like 1800 locations. He’d tirelessly shopped for apparel. He’d purchased a 1770s mobcap for $6. He’d nabbed a 1960s Courreges suit at a thrift shop for $2.

Photographing in front of large and small buildings by architects like Louis Sullivan and Phillip Johnson and clothing Sherman (who was also known as “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall”) in duds by Soeurs Callot, Fortuny, Worth, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Givenchy, Cunningham started with the mid 18th century.

Showing Sherman wearing the $6 purchase in front of the tidy colonial Abigail Adams Smith house built in 1799 at 421 East 61st Street, Cunningham writes, “Typical of the millinery worn by respectable ladies of the time was the mobcap of white lawn and lace with taffeta ribbons.”

About Sherman posing daintily in front of City Hall, at Broadway and Park Row constructed from 1802 to1811, Cunningham notes that “the building exhibits a felicitous mixing of the classic Louis XVI style with American Federal. He goes on to say that “Fashion was taking an Empire shape” and so notices a parallel between the lightness of the building and the ”semitransparent chemise gowns…worn over pink tights or silk slips.”

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As Sherman plays the grand lady and the coquette and everything between, Cunningham pairs elaborate ensembles with changing architectural approaches right up to 1970 when his model is caught before a graffiti-covered subway car. She’s wearing an Afro and “a hippy costume in similar psychedelic coloring.”

It isn’t easy to argue against Cunningham’s thesis. He repeatedly proves it, although sometimes he pushes the point. When Sherman, in an elaborate “Merry Widow” hat and voluminous polka-dot dress, decorates a stoop across from the row houses at 18-52 West 74th Street built in 1904, her echoing them isn’t instantly apparent.

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At other times, Cunningham doesn’t even honor his own premise. In front of the Lever House, the 1952 skyscraper by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, a building that is all vertical and horizontal lines and glass in the International Style, Cunningham has Sherman cavorting in a calf-length flowered dress with a cape, the lining of which is the same fabric as the dress. Of this image, Cunningham writes:

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The fashion world, however, remained aloof from the dictates of modern architectural design—the severe American screen or curtain wall—and continued its opulent, romantic fabrications.

It’s important to mention that the fashions Cunningham displays on these pages are almost always those of the middle and upper classes. Yes, something like the mobcap, a staple of the French Revolution, can be adapted from the street by the more well-heeled. That’s a common occurrence today, of course, but not so much in earlier periods.

About the only time Cunningham refers to anything particularly demotic is when Sherman appears in the 1897 Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Christopher House garden sporting a Charles Dana Gibson “Gibson Girl” outfit. Cunningham says, “[h]er blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves, a straw sailor hat and an unadorned skirt started a mass trend to informal wear.”

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Lord knows that now we’re in the midst of that let’s-be-as-informal-as-we-can-possibly-be trend, or its rebirth—something that the visionary Bill Cunningham likely won’t entirely deny.