Bill Cunningham: Multimedia Man

by Jay Ruttenberg

 Still from "Bill Cunningham New York"

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York"

For the fourth Fashion Projects print issue (Fashion Projects #4, 2013), Jay Ruttenberg wrote about how Bill Cunningham's work foreshadowed today's multimedia journalism.

Recent years have not exactly been a walk in the park for print journalists, a comically beleaguered species plagued by technological hurdles both real and imagined. Yet of all the indignities the modern newspaperman faces, perhaps the most absurd has been the lunge toward corny multimedia reporting. Publishers love to trumpet their hyperactive ventures into unfamiliar mediums. But from a reader’s perspective, most of this content proves inane. Wading into the website of even the strongest magazine or newspaper can be entering perilous territory: Music journalists natter endlessly over streamed songs. Slideshows tick on interminably, like the unedited vacation photos of a bore. Pasty film critics surface onscreen as if trapped by the light of day. Gifted journalists turn up in wacky videos that can verge on hack comedy routines.  

Of course, in rare instances this multimedia content can prove riveting. One suspects that as publications open their ranks to a generation of journalists who came of age under the Internet’s spell, such reporting will flow more naturally alongside its print foundation. In the meantime, readers must make due with sporadic triumphs. And when it comes to the realm of the web extra, few journalist heavies flourish like Bill Cunningham, the famed New York Times fashion photographer. 

Cunningham is an unlikely master of this medium. He is in his 80s—a dinosaur even by Times standards—and a suspected Luddite wed to actual film. He is said to have come by his Times web segment, a spinoff of his weekly On the Street article, reluctantly. His bedrock remains the two columns he mans in the Sunday Styles: the print version of On the Street (a patchwork of his street fashion pictures) and, to a lesser extent, Evening Hours (the society photos that encompass his less exciting beat).

 Still from "Bill Cunningham New York:

Still from "Bill Cunningham New York:

 

On the Street is an unusually whimsical column—among the quirkiest and most personal features in the Times. Both its print and web versions are devoted to the photographs Cunningham takes of women (along with the occasional man or dog) stepping out in Manhattan, generally in parts north. Each column centers around a loose trend that develops in Cunningham’s eye as he putters around town on his bicycle: a sudden wave of plaids, vests, shirtdresses, stripes, young people walking the High Line’s ad hoc catwalk, Upper East Side dowagers who have made bold millinery selections, or women emulating Holly Golightly. In the paper, the pictures run small—he squeezes over 20 shots into half a page—with no captions or IDs. A brief paragraph at the center explains the week’s theme with classic Times sobriety. “Echoes of Ms. Hepburn’s boat necks are reappearing,” the Breakfast at Tiffany’s column states. “One wondered what Holly would look like today.” 

The multimedia version of On the Street takes this framework and blows it up. As the same photographs progress in a slideshow, Cunningham speaks of his week’s gleanings in a funny voice juiced with an old Boston accent and the infectious glee of a cultural enthusiast. “Something mahvelous has been happening when I’m out photographing people going to work on Fifth Avenue,” his Holly Golightly segment begins. “I saw young kids leaning against Tiffany’s façade, and they were having breakfast. And I thought, Wait a minute! … Look at these people! They’re reflecting Holly Golightly, 50 year later. It was very curious! And then I started to wonder, Well, what would the present-day Holly Golightly wear?” As the segment ticks on, he posits about a contemporary Holly’s continued affection for black while commenting on the specific looks of select subjects. 

The photographer delivers these pieces with a charming off-the- cough air. Apparently, this is no put-on. In Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’s fine documentary about the photographer that opened at Film Forum last year, Cunningham is depicted taping his weekly segment. He sits at a table, takes a few seconds to gather his thoughts, and then starts riffing into the microphone in apparent stream of consciousness. Whereas at other points of the movie the photographer is portrayed torturing his designer with painstaking layout decisions and deadline-bending edits, he approaches the online narration nonchalantly, as if he is gossiping with a friend. The effect is wondrous: Suddenly, the website of the world’s greatest news organization appears hijacked by an elderly eccentric, sounding off in a highly idiosyncratic manner about his field of expertise. In discussing his pictures, the photo journalist becomes part professor, part artist, part radio DJ, and part town nut. Digesting the segment is a wholly unique experience. 

Perhaps more pertinently, with his web columns the octogenarian achieves a goal that has eluded sundry younger journalists, availing himself of new technological possibilities without abandoning his original print mission or submitting to wanton Internet glitz. Rather, Cunningham uses the web to illuminate—and, arguably, improve upon—his work for the newspaper. The On the Street columns that run in the Sunday Times (and are faithfully archived on the website alongside the videos) speak to the fashion cognoscenti. To readers such as myself, unversed in the trade, their significance can grow fuzzy: What, exactly, unites these photographs? Why does it matter that this hodgepodge of Midtown office-workers are wearing scarves? Aside from the fact that they appear to be loitering outside of Tiffany & Co., how are these women channeling Truman Capote? It is with his web performances that Cunningham draws out the map. Within a few minutes, even a fashion ignoramus fully understands the week’s spread of photographs and is dosed with the photographer’s teeming zeal for his subject. The segment offers the perfect application of a multimedia feature. It is cultural criticism at its absolute finest.

Fashion Projects #3: Table of Contents

Table of Contents 00— Editorial Letter

01— Fashion as Expanded Practice: An Interview with Shelley Fox by Francesca Granata

02— Experiments in Fashion Curation: An Interview with Judith Clark by Sarah Scaturro

03— Televisual Memories: An Interview with Eugenia Yu by Erin Lindstrom

04— Reflections on Absence Photo Essay: Cooper-Hewitt Textiles Collections Written by Sarah Scaturro; Photographed by Keith Price

05— American Industrial Past: Ohio Knitting Mills by Lisa Santandrea

06— Ready Made Memories: Erica Weiner’s Jewelry by Francesca Granata

07— Imprints of the Body: An Interview with Tanya Marcuse by Tamsen Schwartzman

Fashion Projects #3: Editorial Letter

by Francesca Granata

Back Cover: Eugenia Yu, "Tie Dress" from Father Collection

In thinking of clothes as passing fashions, we repeat less than half-truth. Bodies come and go; the clothes which have received those bodies survive. They circulate though secondhand shops, through rummage sales, through the Salvation Army; or they are transmitted from parent to child, from sister to sister, from brother to brother, from sister to brother, from lover to lover, from friend to friend. (Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things” The Yale Review 1993 vol. 81. no. 2, pp. 35-50)

The idea of dedicating an issue of Fashion Projects to the topic of fashion and memory started while reading Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,” an engaging and lyrical essay on the author’s remembrance of his late colleague Allon White through the garments White wore.

Stallybrass’s piece elucidates people’s intimate relations with clothes—i.e. their materiality, their smell and creases—and the inextricable relations between clothes and memory. It traces the way in which clothes retain "the history of our bodies." Wearing White’s jacket at a conference, the author describes the way clothes are able to trigger strong and vivid memories: "He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called 'memory'; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits."

My interest in the topic was then piqued while sitting in on a class on fashion curation taught by Alistair O’ Neil at the London College of Fashion, where a number of students curated a fashion exhibition comprised of used gowns and top hats, their main value resting not in their design or historical relevance to fashion in history, but in their being second (or maybe third or fourth) hand, thus retaining intricate yet irretrievable history in their signs or wear, their stains, their scents. This lyrical exhibition, titled "A Walk in the Wardrobe" and staged in an old and seemingly abandoned space, was a reminder of the importance of reconnecting with the materiality of cloth and clothes.

This issue’s focus on clothes and memory dovetails with attempts to promote sustainability within the fashion industry. It invokes a counter-tendency in contemporary fashion which reinstates the importance of materiality and emotional connections to our garments in the hope to slow down the accelerated cycles of consumption and discard promoted by current fashion models. As Stallybrass points out, moments of emotional connections with clothes and cloth become, in fact, rare in the accelerated rhythm of contemporary societies: "I think this is because, for all our talk of the 'materialism' of modern life, attention to material is precisely what is absent. Surrounded by an extraordinary abundance of materials, their value is to be endlessly devalued and replaced."

The various contributors to Fashion Projects explore this theme in disparate ways. Sarah Scaturro, textile conservator of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, revisits, together with photographer Keith Price, the museum’s textile collection and her intimate relation with it. She also discusses curatorial practices with Judith Clark, whose exhibition “Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back”—based on Caroline Evans’s theories—is an exploration of the complex temporalities of fashion. Tamsen Schwartzman interviews Tanya Marcuse on her photographic work in fashion archives, while fashion designer Shelly Fox discusses her own design and textiles practice. Erica Weiner recounts her use of other people’s memories via old photographs and human hair for the making of her jewelry, while fledgling designer Eugenia Yu tells Erin Lindstrom of her collections based on her family memories. Finally, Lisa Santandrea revisits North America’s industrial past and obsolete technologies, as they remain embodied in knits produced by the now-defunct Ohio Knitting Mills.

Fashion Projects #3

Cover Image: Shelley Fox, "Foundation," Study and Telephone Room, Belsay Hall: Northumbria, 2004. Photo: Keith Paisley.

Fashion Projects 3 is out and will be available in newstands and bookstores in North America, as well as on our website! The issue focuses on the topic of fashion and memory and was inspired by a moving essay on the topic by Peter Stallybrass. It features interviews with fashion curator Judith Clark, fashion designer Shelley Fox, photographer Tanya Marcuse and much more—and was beautifully designed by Shannon Curren.

We hope you'll enjoy our new issue, as we much as we enjoyed making it!

Fashion Projects #3: Experiments in Fashion Curation—An Interview with Judith Clark

by Sarah Scaturro

Ruben Toledo Drawing for the Simonetta Exhibition at Palazzo Pitti.

I first encountered Judith Clark’s work through a 2004/5 exhibition at the ModeMuseum in Antwerp called “Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back” (later titled “Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back,” when it traveled to the Victoria &Albert Museum). The exhibition was essentially a series of probing conversations about the relationship of fashion with history that took place between Clark and fashion theorist Caroline Evans. Clark has been experimenting with curating and displaying costume since she opened the Judith Clark Costume Gallery in 1997. She is now a joint London College of Fashion/Victoria and Albert Research Fellow.

Fashion Projects : One particularly powerful vignette in the “Malign Muses” exhibition was titled “Locking In and Out,” which manifested in horizontally rotating cogs on which the dressed mannequins were secured. As the cogs literally locked in and out of each other echoing the cyclical nature of fashion, the garments were forced in and out of proximity with others – a fleeting closeness that automatically imposed new relationships between the clothing. Were you surprised at some of the relationships and insights that were realized through this seemingly randommechanism?

Judith Clark: There is of course always a difference between the design and the effect when it is built in the exhibition space. There are also, importantly, the references and associations that the visitor brings to any installation and as you suggest cogs have many powerful connotations. I felt that in a way the “Locking In and Out” section could lend itself to many interpretations– cogs in a fashion machine, or the powerful association between objects through simple proximity, the alienation when this is ‘unlocked’, the endlessness of the fashion cycle, and the odd number three. There could have been any number of cogs and indeed a fanciful first design draft had hundreds of cogs intersecting, which would have further illustrated that all dresses are in some way related to all other dresses, but happen to come into contact only if a trend manipulates the relationship.

Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back. Installation Shot, Victoria and Albert Museum.

FP: In an essay for the book MoMu Backstage, you write, “Historical reference in dress has never been about evolution, continuity. There are other ways of plotting this. In dress, surfaces float free of their histories.” This statement seems to dispute the chronological display methodology that is often apparent in museum exhibitions. Do you think the most effective interpretations of dress dispense with chronology and literalism? What should we be looking for when seeking patterns and relationships in fashion?

JC: I’m not sure that I would dispense with chronological display as it does represent one important story and it does represent evolution from a designer’s point of view. I think the problem with it is that it presents inspiration as linear. What interest me are the other patterns at play. This is why I was so fascinated by Caroline Evans’s book Fashion at the Edge. It was because she was describing inspiration and historical reference in different spatial terms: labyrinthine, as leaps into the past (“tigersprung”) etc. I thought these might be clues to curating a different kind of story. I now get my students to read a piece of theory in three-dimensions, which means reading fashion theory looking out for spatial metaphors, and sketch what shapes come into their heads— these are rarely straight lines.

FP: Exhibitions inherently rely on effective collaborations like the one between you and Caroline Evans. Is it the essentially collaborative nature of the exhibition process that draws you? Who would you most want to collaborate with, and why?

JC: I have had wonderful experiences collaborating on exhibitions and continue to repeat collaborations and conversations with the same people. Some of those conversations date back to the opening of the gallery ten years ago. Usually I am the one who “picks up the phone,” so to speak, and invites people to work on projects, once I have an idea of how the material might be themed, and what the scope is. I have been lucky that I have worked on projects with some research funding attached—so, for example, I could afford to invite the architect Yuri Avvakumov from Moscow to come to London and discuss “Malign Muses” with me. That is a rare luxury.

Anna Piaggi, "Fashion-ology" Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Installation Shot.

FP: Your 2006 exhibition on Anna Piaggi at the V&A titled “Fashion-ology” celebrated the process of fashion more so than the actual realization of clothing. On a parallel line, do you find the process of developing exhibitions or the final outcome to be more inspirational? When you conceptualize an exhibition, are you first intrigued by certain objects, or with a specific question and theme?

JC: I am definitely more interested in process, though I care about the final outcome a lot. It is the bit most people like reading about which is why I am keen to document process in the accompanying exhibition catalogues.

In terms of how I work, I think all of the things you mention appear more or less simultaneously: objects, theme and narrative questions. Then you start testing the different assumptions: questions such as, How many objects exist to illustrate a theme, or is it just the one piece you fell in love with? And then there is the important issue of the enfolding space. I have recently both curated and designed exhibitions so the installation evolves as the objects appear. I do a lot of sketching. I am more of an exhibition designer than a dress historian.

FP: I love your statement, “Anthropomorphic imagination makes clothes magical.” What is it about clothing that can make us instinctually feel an imagined closeness, or parallel existence, as if we somehow understand its previous life?

JC: We dream and imagine stories that are inhabited by clothed people. The stories are powerful because of their associations, not factual accuracy. I think one of the most compelling things for me about Anna Piaggi is her firm belief in this, a fact that has underwritten her collages. She is insistently not a historian, even though her familiarity with the history of dress is vast, but she knows clothes according to her dream-work, her tales. That is why she wears precious vintage dresses. She appropriates the spirit of their previous owners.

FP: It seems that many museums will not show, or even collect, garments that are stained, damaged or heavily distressed (at least not without much restoration). Do you think the effects of age can be a desirable or value-added quality within an exhibition setting? Have you ever experimented in ways to reveal a garment’s personal history?

JC: Not really, but I think it is a very interesting issue. Amy de la Haye is the person who, I think, speaks most interestingly about this subject. In curating the Street Style exhibition at the V&A, she brought these issues into the museum, as in what to do with biker boots? There are clearly many issues where curatorial interest and conservation integrity are and will be at odds.

FP: As the human form has changed over fashion history, it can be a challenge to find the right kind of mannequin (i.e. body type) in order to accurately display a garment. With this in mind, in past exhibitions you have developed specific mannequins in order to realize your vision. Have you ever been tempted to dispense with the human body entirely? Is it even possible to divorce clothing from the body?

JC: I love the fact that the garment is linked so inescapably to the body. I think when the mannequin is invisible, it is the most noteworthy thing about the exhibition—everyone is looking for the body. The clothes will always represent its essential scale and proportions, if they are wearable, which is what I work with mostly. I am also interested in working with conservation constraints and so I have been working with archive mannequins and superimposed ‘prosthetics’ onto these that in some way represent or extend the theme of whatever is being exhibited. I have commissioned the avant-garde jeweler Naomi Filmer to work on these.

A recent example was to punctuate the exhibition dedicated to the designer Simonetta with particular poses and gestures. It seemed essential to have her in the exhibition and she had a particular pose—raised chin, cigarette. It starts at the research phase—I am looking at all these photocopies of Simonetta, thinking, There is her pose again, and then think, How does this get to be in the exhibition?

Simonetta Exhibition at Palazzo Pitti.

FP: I work towards the ethical preservation of textiles and costume in an exhibition setting – a role that inherently leads to limitations and compromises on visual display methods. As a curator working within a museum setting, how do you circumvent such limitations? Do you think that preventive conservation requirements negatively affect the dynamic potential of displays? Did you concern yourself with conservation techniques when you had your gallery? Do you think that exhibition display could be an acceptable occurrence in the “life” of the garment? (Therefore, whatever happens is somehow excusable?)

JC: No, I don’t think anything is excusable for dynamic display. I think part of the interest in this subject for me are precisely the limitations as I said about the mannequins. The clothes are often valuable objects, and certainly fragile and I hope that I manage to work around the brief. The cogs in Malign Muses were set at a conservation-appropriate speed. The mannequin prosthetics didn’t touch the garments. I think people perhaps underestimate my concern about the objects.

FP: Focusing on experimental exhibition techniques, the Judith Clark Costume Gallery succeeded in pushing the field of fashion curation forward through, as you have said, “creating a new grammar, new patterns of time and reference.” Now that the gallery no longer exists, are there any other museums or galleries adopting experimental or innovative approaches to the exhibition of dress? Where do you see the field of fashion curation heading within the next 10 to 20 years?

JC: I’m not sure. I think that the conversations are much more fluid about this subject. We are debating it now. I am working freelance a lot and so importing my attitude to fashion curation to a number of places. I worked at Palazzo Pitti last year and this year I am doing a project for the Boijmans van Beuningen museum. My gallery has downsized to a workshop (to build miniature exhibitions) and hopefully a website for hypothetical exhibitions. I have two small children and so what I think I am doing tomorrow quickly becomes next month.

I think the ”where is it going” question is interesting in relation to what you asked earlier about conservation. These restrictions will not alter and I think it a case of carefully going back to basics and thinking: What can we do with a dress, a plinth, a mannequin and a spot light? Small changes are interesting in my opinion. I think there is also a “virtual” exhibition debate, which appears a lot in our students’work and a restlessness about exhibitions that don’t move. There isn’t enough drama it would seem. I think if it is virtual then it can be wholeheartedly so – i.e. the installation may as well be “hypothetically” on Mars.

FP: Drawing from your statement “Fashion and academia have been uneasy bedfellows,” do you think fashion exhibitions must be grounded in scholarly research in order to be effective? Is there any value in exhibitions that emphasize an entertainment factor?

JC: I think as long as curators don’t lose their nerve about their original idea for an exhibition it is usually OK. The problem is when the sponsor takes over the power. That is revolting. But to make an exhibition popular—why not? I think exhibitions that are based on scholarly research often are just more coherent – the curator has more material to fall back on.

Clark's Sketches and Notes for the Simonetta Exhibition

FP: You state in Backstage that you are interested in “the relationship between curating and digression, in the connections made by the visitors who stray.” Pursuing a similar question, curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute introduced their exhibition “blog.mode: addressing fashion” by writing that in “opening a dialogue with visitors to the exhibition and to the blog, the curators hope to expand their own views and further the practice of fashion interpretation and connoisseurship.” The main premise of their exhibition seeks to garner feedback from their public through the vehicle of blog commenting. Do you think this is an effective platform to study this idea of digression? Are there any other ways that you can think of?

JC: I think it is an interesting approach – I had an exhibition at the gallery called “Captions” where I exhibited one dress and nailed captions to the wall and printed a sheet where visitors could come and write their alternative captions. Some were great, some were really dreadful and pointless. My favorite was written by Caroline Evans’s daughter Caitlin. She wrote a story about the princess who wore the gown and I often think about it. I think the same has happened with the Met blog—it is very hit and miss. It is a fabulous project to do at the Met given their position, because they have a chance to have responses on such a huge scale. I think people are not very articulate about their experiences of exhibitions and so it is difficult to get the account that we might like back from the visitors.

I think it would be interesting to have an exhibition where the curator could totally digress—literally one story become another during the exhibition. But it would be considered so indulgent, I don’t have the courage to do it.

Judith Clark can be found at http://www.judithclarkcostume.com.