A few months ago it was revealed that the late photographer and New York Times collaborator Bill Cunningham left behind an unexpected memoir - Fashion Climbing - discovered after his death in 2016.
The book will be out in September on Penguin, but in the meantime a piece came out about him on the New York Times that focused on his work as a milliner.
Born in March 1929, William J. Cunningham moved to New York in the late '40s where he first worked in advertising. He then moved onto millinery and started making whimsical hats under the name "William J" (to avoid embarrassment to his conservative Bostonian family…).
After returning to New York from serving in the Korean War, he started writing for The Chicago Tribune, shooting fashion reportages for Details magazine and contributing to Women's Wear Daily.
He stopped making hats in 1962, but a chance photograph of Greta Garbo published in a group of pictures in the New York Times in December 1978 spawned a regular column - "On the Street" - in which he documented the attires of people in the streets (spotted while cycling around clad in his blue workman's jacket and khaki pants) and another column about society parties - "Evening Hours". The rest is history and it is chronicled also in the documentary "Bill Cunningham New York" (2010) directed by Richard Press.
The soon-to-be-released memoir may reveal more about Cunningham's life as a milliner: apparently he loved to design over the top hats (some of them are lost, others are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection) and a few are on display in the current Bill Cunningham exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.
The recent piece in the New York Times about Bill Cunningham features a few images of his beach hats inspired by the sea: one is shaped like an octopus, another like a fish and a third one reproduces the spiralling shape of a conic shell (the feature points out that Cunningham created more novelty head pieces shaped like vegetables and fruit...). One of the most bizarre headdresses featured in the images illustrating the New York Times article is a super size straw hat in a shape reminiscent of a fluted giant clam or Tridacna squamosa, a bivalve mollusc characterised by leaf-like fluted edges on its shell, scaly projections called "scutes".
The effect is surreal, but also a bit cartoonish: the model wearing the clamshell hat looks indeed as if she had been swallowed by the giant piece, though maybe the designer wanted to get a different impression and was probably hinting at the woman's head being like a precious pearl.
The hat seemed to have more or less the same dimensions of a giant clam of the genus Tridacna like the ones on display at the Museum of Malacology in Cupra Marittima (the biggest one in these images is almost one century old and weighs around 200 Kg).
Tridacna shells can be of great inspiration for their waving forms and layered texture and in modern fashion there have been two dresses vaguely calling to mind clams that were actually inspired by other types of shells.
In 1988 John Galliano came up with a strapless gown that reproduced the sculptural qualities of scallop shells in its circular petal skirt composed of concentric rows of overlapping bands of bias-cut organdie.
The second example is Alexander McQueen's "oyster dress" from his "Transitions" collection (Spring/Summer 2003): in this case the designer opted for a darker inspiration - disaster at sea - a theme evoked by the sand-colored organza of the dress with its disheveled top and mille-feuille-like frayed skirt, reproducing the wavy lip of a giant mollusc. McQueen conceived the dress in a symbolic way: it was indeed a deconstructing oyster that preserved a beautiful pearl - the survivor of violent waves or maybe the drowned victim of a terrible sea storm.