More Than a Facade: Bill Cunningham

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Can a 30-year-old exhibition still be relevant today? If it is Bill Cunningham’s Facades, it is. After several reincarnations—most notably at the New York Historical Society—the evergreen exhibit is now on display at the Four Arts in Palm Beach.

Facades is a prescient title. At first look, the photographs that Cunningham took of his friend and collaborator, Editta Sherman, are a bit campy. They seem to be snapshots of a coy and often smiling Mrs. Sherman. Her theatrical poses in front of the aging buildings of New York City somewhat belie the message. These photographs are finely crafted images of the history of fashion and the corresponding history of architecture. These pairings were not happenstance; diligent research connected the two arts. The commonality of dress style to the architectural facade becomes evident, for example, in the classical Ionic column echoed in a Fortuny dress, or with a wink and a nod to Paris, up a ladder in Dior.

Cunningham and Sherman sought original dresses for their fashion statements. Flea markets and thrift shops provided the clothes, but one had to know what was the right frock for the right facade. Marty Bronson, in the 1977 catalogue, reports that “[Cunningham] found nearly 500 outfits that can be dated between 1786 and 1976.” Evidently, if the proper hat could not be found, Mr. Cunningham knew how to create it. He began his career as a milliner, under the label William J. He knows his history there, too, as every hat is correct, even if it is a reproduction.

Anyone who reads the New York Times knows Bill Cunningham. Every Sunday, his photographs record what is happening in New York. He has a curatorial eye for trends. Besides the camera, Cunningham uses another tool for his craft: the bicycle. It sets the right pace to discover some of the 1,500 locations he used.

From 1968 to 1976 Bill and Editta created their collaborative art in their spare time. Bill was writing for Women’s Wear Daily and Editta was a photographer in her own right. Those years in New York were years of turmoil. The city was close to defaulting, buildings were being burned, and row houses were being destroyed to allow for new development. Even train stations were targets. Pennsylvania Station, a McKim, Mead and White edifice of 1910, was dismantled in 1963. Grand Central was the next to go. As Bill and Editta were documenting design achievements of the past, the present was forging ahead with the wrecking ball. Happily, preservationists prevailed with the Grand Central Terminal, but many structures were destroyed to make way for the new. Not all bad, as the new-then buildings like the Guggenheim Museum.

Although Mr. Cunningham has said that he and Editta Sherman did this project for “the fun of it.” The result is a profound show with multilayered messages that are very valid today, 30 years later. There is more that meets the eye than the first impression of a facade, especially if that eye belongs to Bill Cunningham.

I would like to thank Nancy Matto at the Four Arts and Dr. Valerie Paley at the Historical Society for their generous time and help in creating this article.