Arts & Culture

What It Was Like Dressing Up For Bill Cunningham

As the legendary photographer's secret memoir hits stores, one of his favorite muses reveals what it was like to be his subject.
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES/ KRISTY SPAROW
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After Bill Cunningham died in 2016, a secret memoir of his early days in the industry, long before he was a photographer, was discovered. Now, that book, Fashion Climbing(Penguin), is seeing the light of day, and one of his most frequent subjects, the writer and T&C contributor Amy Fine Collins, recalls getting to know, if only from a distance, the legendary street style lensman.

Around the time I was completing my art history studies at Columbia University, Geoffrey Beene commissioned me to write the program notes for his runway show at the Pierre. As payment, he offered me an irresistible ensemble: a jumpsuit with a white cotton piqué bolero. Gradually, as our association developed into an artist-muse relationship, Beene began to dominate my wardrobe (and, to a certain extent, my life), and Bill Cunningham zealously recorded the process.

Before long Bill’s photos of me in Beene—which appeared often in both his On the Street and Evening Hours columns in the New York Times Styles section—took on a life of their own. Sometimes it even seemed that I, or at least my newsprint image, had become public property. People would notify me if I failed to show up in the paper one week, as if I had disappointed them.


The author with Robert Rufino and wearing red Geoffrey Beene, captured by an unseen man in a blue smock.

One acquaintance, a sporadic Bill subject herself, was demoralized when we both appeared in an On the Street layout instead of in Evening Hours, where names were included. Like many strivers, she missed the point. Bill really didn’t care about the person or her background; it was all about the clothes. Anything that stimulated his optic nerve was fair game.

Another curious phenomenon occurred once I became a fixture of Bill’s pages. I attracted a bevy of new friends, who photobombed me at every turn. These Styles section hopefuls would then draw into their orbit rival photographers, who blocked Bill’s sightlines. When a competitor snapped a tableau that Bill had spotted, he would explode in rage: “He’s stealing my picture!”

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The author, Amy Fine Collins, wearing red Geoffrey Beene

Bill was a genius at detecting visual puns—the accidental echoes between a painting, a decorative object, or an architectural element and the woman standing by it. Swanning around in a fluffy new ball gown in an effort to beguile Bill was not the worst offense in his playbook. (Often he would merely set off his Nikon flash, only pretending to take a photo.) The most egregious crime was outright directing him where to point and shoot.

My conversations with Bill over the years were brief but always memorable. On the fly I would snag a quote from him about a fashion personality I was profiling. Sometimes a name would cause him to light up incandescently as he tossed a few choice words my way. Other names would darken his demeanor, and he would be ruthless in his dismissal of them.

Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs

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One evening at the Pierre he nearly lost his reason over the black strapless dress by the then obscure designer Norisol Ferrari that I was wearing. It was embellished with a little detachable lace apron, which he recognized as an homage to a Mainbocher invention from long ago—one that, with his eidetic memory, he recalled for me in minute detail, as if he had just seen an example of it hours before.

Of all the fleeting, friendly words Bill and I exchanged over the years, the ones that linger most indelibly were uttered at the 2006 opening of the Nan Kempner exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute. Observing how transfixed I was by the late clotheshorse’s collection, he leaned in to impart his wisdom: “Child, never get rid of anything.”

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This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Town & Country.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Amy Fine Collins
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