Hats Off to Bill Cunningham: The Lovable Photographer's Millinery Creations Snapped Up for $20,000 at Auction

Bill Cunningham's "Fanciful Feather Hat"
(Courtesy 1stdibs.com, photography provided by Katy Kane - William J)

If you’ve seen “Bill Cunningham New York,” and let’s assume you have, you know that before the legendary New York Times fashion photographer was hunting down looks on the street and the runway, he was laboring over his first love, millinery.

Bill Cunningham’s hats weren’t exactly career making, though. He had to go by the name William J, to protect his conservative family. And these weren’t your average hat designs, either. They often took the form of birds, plants, flower bouquets, and other unusual objects.

“I don’t think we sold many,” he told the New York Times last year. “Everything I did was a little too exotic — you know, for normal people.”

However, there’s at least one person who’s quite taken with the hats. Yesterday, a single buyer scooped up all 23 William J pieces on auction at 1stdibs.com to the tune of $20,000. The whole event was over in 10 minutes, breaking the record for quickest sale on the site.

The identity of the buyer hasn’t been revealed, but WWD claims that she’s an “arts patron and friend of the cycling street-style photographer.” What we do know is that this buyer is looking out for all of us: the entire collection will be donated to a museum in Cunningham’s name. Which museum that might be has not yet been made public, but there’s a good chance it will be in New York, where Cunningham has lived and worked his whole life.

How did the long-lost artifacts of Cunningham’s past life resurface? Alison Shacter, a friend of the photographer’s, acquired them from her aunt, Milly, who had 23 Cunningham hats from the 1940s and ’50s among her hoarded belongings. When Shacter found them, she passed them along to Katy Kane, a vintage dealer based out of New Hope, Pennsylvania, who then arranged for the pieces to hit the online auction block.  

The sale capped what has to be an exceptional week for Cunningham. On Monday he was awarded the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence, and accepted it during a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. Although he was guest of honor, Cunningham still toted around his camera, taking it out whenever a pretty dress caught his eye.

Let’s hope the hats find a home soon, so everyone can become acquainted with Bill Cunningham, the milliner.

Click on the slide show to see images of Bill Cunningham’s hats.