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Guide to the Bill Cunningham Collection
 MS 3137

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on July 01, 2019
Finding aid written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Descriptive Summary

Creator: Cunningham, William J.
Title: Bill Cunningham collection
Dates [inclusive]: circa 1957-2017
Abstract: The collection includes various items related to the fashion designer and photographer Bill Cunningham (1929-2016), especially in connection with his friendship with artist Roberta Wolfe-Baer (1925-2016). The collection includes Cunningham's notes to Wolfe-Baer, photographs of Wolfe-Baer wearing an orange feather hat of Cunningham's design, newspaper clippings and tearsheets with articles by or about Cunningham, a "William J." business card, and other items.
Quantity: 2.21 Linear feet in one document box and one oversize folder
Call Phrase: MS 3137

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Biographical / Historical

Roberta C. Wolfe-Baer (1925-2016) was an artist and art teacher who lived her later life in Angola, NY. She attended Albright Knox Art School from 1943-1946 and taught art at the high school level from 1948-1955. In 1965 she started an art gallery and studio in her home in Angola, where she taught daily art classes and displayed her artwork until 2010. Bill Cunningham's notes seem to suggest that Wolfe-Baer was particularly fond of the color orange, using it in her palette and often in her choice of clothing, and leading him to call her affectionately "the orange one." Cunningham seems to have met her in New York when he was still maintaining fashion design business. His letters in this collection also refer to a "Neva," who is no doubt Wolfe-Baer's mother, Neva Wolfe.

Bill Cunningham (1929-2016) was born in Boston. After dropping out of Harvard in 1948, he moved to New York City, where he lived in the Carnegie Hall apartments and began his business designing hats under the name "William J." He closed the shop in 1962. By the late 1970s, he had earned a reputation for his street and fashion photography, leading to regular features in the New York Times and photo spreads in magazines such as Details.

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Scope and Contents

The collection includes various items related to the fashion designer and photographer Bill Cunningham that were acquired by the New-Historical Society at auction in 2017. A thread that links many of the items is their connection to a friend of Cunningham's, Roberta Wolfe-Baer. Most significant are the several notes from Cunningham to Wolfe-Baer, dating from about 1979 to 2016. These notes are typically short, handwritten on postcards, greeting cards, clippings from the New York Times of Cunningham's photographs, Post-it stickies on print-outs of Cunningham's photography, and the like. They were often sent for occasions like Wolfe-Baer's birthday on March 18 or the Christmas holiday season. In these notes, Cunningham often expresses his feelings behind the images sent or the sources of his inspiration, such as when referring to winter scenes or the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston (where he went "to dream of beauty" as a child). Occasionally Cunningham turns to current events, such as when referring to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Barack Obama "pulling the rug from under" the Clintons during the 2008 presidential primaries. But principally these notes are filled with Cunningham's affection for Wolfe-Baer and frequently play on his reference to her as the "Orange One." There are two letters from Cunningham to Wolfe-Baer's life companion, Stephen, dating from the months after her death in 2016 in which Cunningham reflects on her memory. Wolfe-Baer also appears in photographs in the collection, wearing an orange feather hat (which is now in N-YHS's museum collection).

In addition to the Wolfe-Baer notes, the collection includes an extensive number of newspaper clippings from around 1960 that relate to Cunningham's fashion work of the time, when he was known as William J. There are also several clippings from the late 1990s and into the 2000s when his photography appeared in the New York Times. Other clippings and tearsheets include articles by or about Cunningham.


The collection is arranged by document type.

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Access Points

Subject Names

  • Wolfe-Baer, Roberta C., 1925-2016

Document Type

  • Clippings (information artifacts).
  • Letters (correspondence).
  • Picture postcards.
  • Tear sheets.

Subject Topics

  • Fashion design.
  • Fashion photography.
  • Street photography.

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Administrative Information

Conditions Governing Access

Open to qualified researchers.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to twenty exposures of stable, unbound material per day. (Researchers may not accrue unused copy amounts from previous days.) This collection is owned by the New-York Historical Society. The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before January 1, 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as the Bill Cunningham collection, MS 3137, New-York Historical Society.

Related Materials

The New-York Historical Library also holds the following collections related to Bill Cunningham:

Bill Cunningham Facades Photograph Collection (PR 307)

Melanie Tinnelly collection of photographs of or by Bill Cunningham and Toni "Suzette" Cimino

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was acquired by N-YHS's Museum Department by purchase from Augusta Auctions, lots 335and 336, on October 25, 2017. The museum retained objects from the lots, including the orange feather hat, and transferred the letters, clippings, etc. to the N-YHS Library in 2019.

Processing Information

Processed by archivist Larry Weimer, June 2019.

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Container List

Container 1 Container 2   Title Date
Box: 1 Folder : 1-2 Notes to Roberta Wolfe-Baer (2 folders)
circa 1979-2016
Folder: OS-Small Notes to Roberta Wolfe-Baer. Oversize

Scope and Contents

Clips of Cunningham's "On the Street" and other New York Times features that were sent to Wolfe-Baer by Cunningham with notes to her written around the article or on attached Post-it stickies.

Box: 1 Folder : 3 Business Card / Note

Scope and Contents

William J. illustrated business card, with handwritten note on back.

Box: 1 Folder : 5 Photographs

Scope and Contents

Photo of happy Cunningham with woman wearing a hat; photo of Roberta Wolfe-Baer wearing orange feather hat; photo of Wolfe-Baer wearing Bee Hive Hat; other related reproductions; obituary of Wolfe-Baer.

Box: 1 Folder : 6 Issue of "Paper" Magazine

Scope and Contents

Includes portion of magazine oncerning fashion with Cunningham's annotations.

1998 September
Box: 1 Folder : 7 ["Details" magazine]

Scope and Contents

Portion of magazine with fashion article and photographs by Cunningham

Box: 1 Folder : 8 "Details" magazine

Scope and Contents

Includes portion of magazine with fashion article and photographs by Cunningham

Box: 1 Folder : 9-10 Clippings (2 folders)
circa 1957-1962
Box: 1 Folder : 11 Clippings (Later Life/Obituaries)
Folder: OS-Small Clippings. Oversize
circa 1960-2016
Box: 1 Folder : 12 Label for Augusta Auctions lot 336
2017 October 25

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