Book Review–Bill Cunningham: On the Street

All photos by Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham, the famous fashion photographer, liked to claim that he wasn’t a photographer at all.  Instead he was a columnist who wrote with pictures.  There is something to this statement.  The story goes that he first documented what he saw by writing and drawing in little notebooks.  When a friend suggested he try a camera, he never looked back.  No wonder he thought he was writing with pictures.

My best Christmas gift this year was the wonderful new book focusing on Cunningham’s street photography.  It is the ideal coffee table book—big, luxurious, and filled with pictures.  Starting in the 1970s it goes up until the 2010s, documenting big trends and wacky fads seen on the streets of the New York.  All of the photos come from Cunningham’s archive—a collection so vast that the containers had to be moved by fork lift.  I can’t imagine how the editor, Tiina Loite, went about making selections for the book.

Cunningham’s “On the Street” columns for the New York Times were jammed packed with photos, giving a sense of the proliferation of a single color or style. Even though it goes against Cunningham’s own aesthetic, Loite has taken a different approach. Sometimes she highlights a single picture, and at the most she chooses just four examples of a look. Cunningham might not have liked this, but I think this lets you see the details more clearly, while still getting a sense of the theme.

Although Cunningham certainly had an elitist streak, showing a fondness for wealthy society women who could afford glamorous clothes, this book reveals his populist tendencies. All of New York–old and young, poor and rich, women and men, of color and not–gets his attention. He found unusual looks and surprising patterns everywhere.

This book is both a wonderful fashion history, documenting trends over a fifty year period, and also a lesson in looking. The photos teach that if you just open your eyes and pay attention, you too might recognize that many on the street are suddenly wearing a particular shade of pink.

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Imaginary Sewing

Vogue Pattern Book, August/September 1962

As a historian, I relish finding secret messages from the past—sketches in book margins, shopping lists and the like—that no one but the writer was meant to see.  I discovered several such notes in an old issue of Vogue Pattern Book from 1962.  They comprise a vision of a seasonal wardrobe that was most likely never made.

What did the reader dream of sewing?  As far as I can guess, her process went through three stages.  First she browsed the magazine and marked things she liked.  (Note the check in the lower right corner in the image above.) In the first go-around, she noted six patterns in all, including a Paris original suit, two skirts, and a dress that was recommended for Mrs. Exeter. 

She then turned to the line drawings at the back of the magazine, where many of the patterns were listed by number.  Some of her checked favorites were not circled here, while new ones were added.  She also experimented with fabric ideas, like making a dress and jacket combination out of denim.

The last step was the order form, another process of adding and subtracting.  In pencil she marked down six patterns.  Some like pattern 5560, the “smashing basic” pictured above, had been a favorite all along. However, she also included a sleeveless coat dress that had never been marked before.

And then…she never sent the form.  Sometimes all the fun is in the planning.

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New Year’s Eve, 1948

Life, January 17, 1949

As much as I love New Year’s Eve, I don’t think I’ve ever had a much fun as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was having at this 1948 party. Now there is a big laugh!  This photo is part of a series of pictures covering a Hollywood event.  While most of the photos in the article show young stars, I thought it was interesting that these older women were included as well. “Hedda Hopper has just learned something amazing from Mrs. Edwin Schallert, a movie newswriter,” reads the caption.

Both women are dressed to the nines for the occasion. Mrs. Schallert, on the right, wears a black lace dress with long sleeves. I think there must be flesh colored netting holding up the scalloped bodice at the top. Otherwise wouldn’t it fall off of her shoulders?  Hopper is much more covered up in her taffeta dress, trimmed with embroidered flowers, worn much a matching long coat. She also has on gloves.  Look at their expensive looking necklaces, earrings, and elaborate hair styles. That must have been some fancy party!

Happy New Year! It has to be better than this one. But wait…didn’t I say that last year?

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Ho, Ho, Humbug–Thoughts on the Christmas Sweater

Found photo, 1996

When it comes to Christmas sweaters, call me Scrooge.  What is the point of making or buying something that is meant to be either silly or unattractive and can only be worn a limited time of the year?  Surely this is the mark of a consumer culture gone wild.

If you look online for the origins of Christmas sweaters, most sources say the tradition began in the 1950s, when the cult of Christmas really took off in the US and many people had enough money to buy things made for special occasions only.  After spending several hours searching newspaper advertisements on line, I contend that the 1930s are a better starting place.

By that decade women could already find the three main genres of the holiday sweater: winter motifs, sparkles, and Christmas-specific designs.  With the growing popularity of the Tyrolean style, sweaters adorned with snowflakes, pine trees, and Edelweiss became widely available.  Sportswear companies like Jantzen began making ski outfits with similar motifs.  Advertisements for sparkly sweaters designed to brighten up the holidays emerged in newspapers.  And in 1937 I discovered the first ad for the so called “Jingle Bell sweater,” made specifically for Christmas.    

I think the Christmas sweaters of today evolved from these fairly subtle origins.  The sparkle sweater moved from a few stripes of tasteful glitter to lit up Christmas trees, the well placed snowflake metastasized into moose decorated monstrosities, and jingle bell sweaters grew to include Santa, Rudolph, and assorted elves.

Bah Humbug.  It’s a hard season to be a minimalist.

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Mrs. Exeter’s Fall Wardrobe, 1962

Vogue Pattern Book, August/September 1962

Do you remember Mrs. Exeter, Vogue’s older woman of fashion?  I recently came across her again in a Vogue Pattern Book from 1962.  By that time, she had all but disappeared from the fashion magazine.  Apparently editors believed she was still sewing, though, and occasionally indicated patterns that they thought a stylish but not too adventurous older woman would like.  “Mrs. Exeter, never fashion’s pawn, takes a cool, composed look at the possibilities of the new season,” starts a three page spread on her fall choices. 

Vogue Pattern Book, August/September 1962

It is worth noting that none of the recommended patterns is listed among the “new shapes for Fall.”  If you include the outfit portrayed in the black and white photo, Mrs. Exeter gets three suits, five dresses, and one coat for the season.  The colors, when they are mentioned, are quite subdued—black, white, gray, brown, and taupe.

What kind of life would support this kind of wardrobe?  I guess lots of lunches, museum visits, and women’s club meetings.  She is hardly a night owl. Only one outfit, the suit with the pill box hat depicted above the second “E,” ranks as evening wear.  Unless she wears a cast off dress from years back, she doesn’t do her own housecleaning. (If so, let’s hope the skirts are a little wider.)  And it goes without saying that she doesn’t wear pants.

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Hatless in a Hat Shop, 1942

The photos taken by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information during the Great Depression and Second World War offer many insights into how ordinary Americans survived hard times. One small slice of history was recorded by photographer and later anthropologist John Collier. He went to Richmond, West Virginia to document a government program that sent unemployed young people from the area to help with the harvest in upstate New York. His photos provide a visual account of the applicants, their train trip North, and small glimpses from their life on the job.

Collier also took the time to ask local people what they thought of the program. This photo of Mrs. Burt Marshall was particularly informative.  She felt that girls should not have been sent away, but that it was good for the boys “because it trains them to be good citizens and participate in the war effort.”

Don’t you wish that Collier had recorded information about her life as well?  Was she a milliner? A shop owner? A customer?  Surrounded by hats, why wasn’t she wearing one herself? And where did she find that boldly printed shirtwaist dress?

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An Immigrant Family, 1906-1908

Found photo

I find many of the photos for this blog in thrift stores, at flea markets, and on sites like eBay.  Most of them are not dated, which means that I have had to teach myself how to make educated guesses about when they were made.  Awhile back I asked a costume designer friend of my daughter’s to date this photo that I found at a thrift store in Western Massachusetts. In my view, costume designers are the most skilled people in the world of dress and fashion. For their work, they need a very detailed sense of fashion history and a keen understanding of how clothes were made and worn. 

There was so much to learn from her analysis of the photo! She looked carefully at small details like the cuts of sleeves and the placement of pleats.  She also used the husband’s mustache in her dating process. However, her most important discovery is that the photograph was made from two different negatives. She noticed that the carpet pattern beneath the husband’s feet was different than that beneath the wife and children.  There is also a strange faded spot where the daughter’s hand meets her father’s. Perhaps this family was separated by continents and reunited only through the photograph.

Given my own training in Russian history, I associate the kerchief that the mother wears with Russian and Ukrainian peasant women or Orthodox Jewish women who covered their hair for religious purposes.  The aprons that both mother and daughter wear also makes them look like they come from the countryside.  And look at their very sturdy shoes, the kind you might wear working the fields. This older woman is either a very recent immigrant, or else she is still in her native country waiting to be united with her husband.   

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A Southern California Thanksgiving, 1906

Anaheim Public Library via the Online Archive of California

Why is this family eating outside on Thanksgiving, you might ask.  Late November can be hot in Southern California, as the Santa Ana winds sweep in from the desert.  As I write on this Thanksgiving over 100 years later, the same winds are blowing and the temperature is projected to reach into the 80s.

None of the women felt the need for jackets in this photo of the William Webb family celebrating Thanksgiving in Anaheim in 1906.  Today Anaheim is home to Disneyland and there isn’t much green space left, but even in my youth there were still orchards and farmland.  You can see what might be the beginning of an orchard in the background to the right.  The dinner might have included house and field staff. Do you think the turkey in the foreground could have fed them all?

As far as I can tell, all of the women might be wearing the popular skirt and shirtwaist combination of the era.  You can see that the style allowed for a lot of variation, with different colored shirts and even prints to liven things up.  The two oldest women sit at the front of the table.  As is often the case, their clothes are not quite up to date.  Their upper sleeves are very full, in the style of the previous decade.  I can almost hear them saying, “This is my best outfit and I’m going to wear it today.”

May you also wear what makes you happy on this festive day. 

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Pose with Swagger Coat, early 1930s

Found photo

This photo introduced me to a new fashion term.  Although some of the words are cut off, the writing on the back clearly reads, “I wanted you to see my new swagger coat.”  Quick online research revealed that the swagger coat was a wide, loose coat that hung from the shoulders without any waist definition.  It began its popularity in the early 1930s lasting well into the forties.  Perhaps it got its name because it allowed the wearer lots of room to swagger around.  For those of you more expert than I, just how does the swagger coat of the thirties differ from the swing coat of the fifties?

I’ve dated the photo to the early 1930s because of the length of the woman’s skirt and her shoes, which look to retain some of the fun cutouts of shoes from the twenties.  Did she make the coat herself?  Her pose and outfit certainly seem inspired by some of the pattern illustrations from that era, right down to the jaunty hat.

But what is she wearing under the coat?  At first I thought it might be a very long belted tunic worn over another dress.  Then I realized that it could be a color blocked dress with a bit of flare at the bottom, along the lines of the pattern above. 

Whatever she has on underneath, she certainly looks ready to swagger out and meet any challenges that lie ahead.

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Mrs. Kate Mike Sets Sail for France, 1933

In my search for images of women on Veterans Day, I quickly discovered that the most common pictures were of Gold Star mothers, women who had lost children in American wars.  The group was founded in 1928 for mothers of the victims of World War One, later expanding to include other conflicts.

Beginning in 1930, the US government financed trips for Gold Star mothers to visit their sons’ graves in France.  While most of the photos I found were of white women, a few acknowledged that white soldiers were not the only ones who died

This remarkable newspaper shot shows Mrs. Kate Mike from the Winnebago Tribe setting off to find the grave of her son.  A confused archivist dated the photo as 1920 (for group that began eight years later) and tagged it as World War Two (wrong war).  A little online research shows the date was 1933.  A glance at the clothes tells the same story, with the iconic cloche hats of the twenties combined with longer skirt lengths of the thirties.

We can regret the racist language here—“her son died on the warpath”—and the attempt to make her contribution of a tobacco pouch seem strange.  Still I’m glad that the photographer took the time to document this brave 74 year old woman, who did not feel obliged to change her style in order to make the long journey to honor her son. 

Apparently Mrs. Kate Mike became well known in some circles, and even had a doll created for her.  Compliment or insult?  You decide.

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