Shelf Awareness gave me Bill Cunningham’s memoir to review. I requested it because I’d seen the documentary on his later life as a cycling street fashion photographer for the Times. His book makes it clear that what drove everything he did, was the art. Taste, joy and creative expression were his guiding lights, and he railed against those who cultivate fashion only for status. “For me, the true creative road of design is one of continual struggle, both financially and morally…. Artists have tried desperately to blend creative life with modern comfortable living. I don’t think they go together.”
He wrote that in the early to mid 1960s. I think he’s still right. The book world, the arts world, the fashion and music worlds all seem to be loaded heavily on the younger end. People hope to make middle class livings doing those things, and when they realize that’s not likely, they drop out.
I grew up around dedicated artists and musicians who were still at it over 40, all of them scraping by. I loved their self-created lives, aspired to be like them. Some had tried bigger cities for a while, then retreated to cheaper homes in smaller cities, towns or rural areas because their work mattered most. My oldest friend is another one. Organized, reliable, resourceful, charming, and winner of many grants, she has hustled for decades, and still sits on the poverty line, patching together a living from teaching, landladying, and the support of a community of friends who step up for each other, as needed.
My own arty mother qualified for food stamps when I was in high school and she was in grad school. As I headed off to get an expensive drama degree from NYU, my goals were to always know where my food and housing money were coming from each month, and if necessary, to own a reliable used car.
Part of that degree was an Introduction to the Profession course, featuring guest speakers who were all theater professionals in one way or another. I still have the notebook. Liz Swados, Ruth Malaczech, Philip Glass, Hal Prince, Spalding Gray. But one of my most distinct memories from that class, was the internationally acclaimed experimental theater artist who said she had no idea when she started out that she would end up raising her kids on welfare.
I used to think that most people who went for careers in the arts grew up solidly middle class, at minimum, and had the comfort of a safety net behind them. Of course that isn’t always true. Bill Cunningham had a net. His friend and favorite model Editta Sherman absolutely did not. She was so poor, she had to send her five children to live in an orphanage for a while (they came home on weekends) so she could handle her photography business and dying husband. In time she photographed Henry Fonda and Leonard Bernstein, and hung out with Andy Warhol. And made this absolutely wonderful and not at all lucrative book with Bill Cunningham.
It’s a crazy arty project of Sherman modeling Cunningham’s antique clothing collection in front of appropriate old buildings in Manhattan, covering the colonial period to the 1970s. It’s called Facades, just the kind of title he would pick. I got my copy pretty recently online, and it seemed as if Sherman’s descendants have a stack they’re selling off.
The whole thing looks like so much fun, a crazy historic fashion nerd project by two friends who adored each other and made each other laugh. A joint instagram account from the 1970s. The captions are so serious, in a voice that would suit 1950s Vogue, identifying the date, the address, and the garments, including invisible details. The photos themselves are sometimes dignified, but often not. Editta strikes pinup poses, takes a dance step, is caught mid-laugh, or flips her hoop skirt at the camera to show the bloomers underneath.
Here they are, still at it, decades later. When you get old, they say, you become a more extreme version of who you’ve been all along. Aren’t they lovely.