William J. printing plate
Wooden printing block with metal plate affixed to the front. Block reads “William J. / 44 West 54th Street,” written backwards.
William John “Bill” Cunningham (1929-2016) was a long-time New York Times photographer and journalist known for his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns. A cultural anthropologist as much as a fashion photographer, Cunningham became distinguished for his candid street and event photographs of New Yorkers that depicted up-to-the-minute fashion trends. Among Cunningham’s most frequent locations to photograph his candid shots was the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street and at the “up-to-twenty galas” he attended each week.
Born in Boston, Cunningham moved to New York in 1948. Although he began working as a journalist during the early 1960s, he initially made hats in New York. Cunningham, in fact, began his career as a milliner and worked in passionately in that field for almost two decades. A visual learner who enjoyed working with his hands, he opened his own millinery shop, William J., on East 52nd Street around 1950.
Cunningham’s most striking millinery designs incorporated unusual naturalistic forms and ornament. In a 1961 interview, he acknowledged that his work was not particularly wearable, stating:
I used to do birds jumping through hoops, and the fashion press went wild over my beach hats. But my sisters would say, ‘William, who wears them?’ and I knew they were right. People do wear them, of course, but it’s really a joke.”
Cunningham began creating more wearable hats in the early 1960s, with the hope that they would be easier to sell. Unfortunately, this change happened during a time when traditional women’s hats were no longer fashionable. The two corduroy hats here, 2017.73.1 and 2017.73.2, likely date to the early 60s, when Cunningham created his most wearable fabrications. These hats are reminiscent of newsboy caps and pillbox hats, and are soft with no understructure. The address on the accompanying printing plate, 44 West 54th Street, was the location of Cunningham’s shop, William J., from 1954 to about 1960. William J. was a one-man operation, so Cunningham branded his bags and boxes himself.