A new documentary movie was recently released titled The Times of Bill Cunningham, about the well known street-fashion photographer whose photo chronicles and columns appeared in the New York Times from 1978-2016. It wasn’t until I watched the trailer, however, that I learned that even though Cunningham was most famous for his fashion photography, he was first a well-known milliner.

William John Cunningham Jr (1929-2016) was born in Boston. At nineteen he dropped out of a full scholarship at Harvard University and moved to New York City, where he worked in the advertising department of the luxurious Bonwit Teller Department Store. During his first year in New York, Cunningham began to design hats under the name of William J. He did this because designing under his family’s respected name would have been disgraceful to his parents.

Cunningham set up his studio and lived on 52nd street, between Madison and Park. He designed fanciful and inventive collections aimed at giving women the hat of their dreams. He ran a successful millinery business and his pieces were worn by stars such as Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers and Marylin Monroe. Despite his impressive clientele, he still worked two jobs on the side to make ends meet, as his designs were seen as too exotic by many people.

William J hats were daring and imaginative. They included such outrageous designs as an octopus with tentacles wrapping around the head, a fish hat with glittering scales and a giant clam shell which the wearer’s face peeked out of like a shining pearl. There were hats that looked like fruits and vegetables and potted plants that seemed to grow from the head. One of his large sun hats had a fringe all the way around the brim which hung right down to the floor. Apparently, this was so that bathers could change into a swimsuit behind the fringe! Cunningham’s hats were surreal and strange and certainly not for the wearer who wanted to look like everyone else.

As Bill Cunningham’s career as a milliner was relatively short, William J hats are an extremely rare find. In 2012, there was an auction for 23 of his hats which all sold to one buyer for $20,000. These pieces were then donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some of these pieces can be viewed at www.metmuseum.org. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!/search?artist=William%20J.$William%20J.

Cunningham was forced to put his millinery business on hold when he was drafted to serve in the US Army during the Korean War. He was stationed in France. Returning from duty in 1954, he went back to making hats with fresh inspiration from the French fashions he had seen. Business was slow as hats were declining in popularity, however, and by 1962 he stopped making them all together. 

Going on to write about fashion for Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune, Cunningham received his first camera in 1967 and found the passion he would pursue for the rest of his life. He led a life dedicated to capturing street fashion and became one of New York City’s most recognized and treasured figures.

A brand new documentary movie was recently released: https://youtu.be/r7dUM0QcumE