Brow Beat

What I Learned From Bill Cunningham and His Very Unconventional Peacock

The irreplaceable Bill Cunningham.
The irreplaceable Bill Cunningham.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Adapted from The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences … and Hysteria by Simon Doonan

In 1985, I was hired by Diana Vreeland to design the displays for a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit entitled Costumes of Royal India. I spent four sequin-encrusted months zhooshing bejeweled saris onto mannequins. And yes, there was no shortage of pink ones—Vreeland once famously declared that “Pink is the navy blue of India.” I have many happy memories of this period, not the least of which was meeting Bill Cunningham—an irreplaceable creative original who will be dearly missed after his death on Saturday.

I was immediately struck by how much Vreeland loved and respected Mr. Cunningham. D.V. was convinced that every Met costume installation needed to have a contribution from the bicycle riding photographer/milliner/fashion sage. She saw him as a good-luck talisman.

On the occasion of the Royal India show, I was instructed by D.V. to leave space for a white peacock in one of my maharajah dioramas. Bill, an amateur taxidermist, had promised La Vreeland that he would deliver a specimen, stuffed and preening, in time for the opening. Days passed. The clock ticked. No peacock. I stared anxiously at the empty space, already spot-lit, that awaited the arrival of Bill’s bird.

On the last day of the installation Bill careened into the parking lot on his bicycle. On the handlebars was a large object in a trash bag. Yes, it was Mr. Peacock. Hugely relieved, I indicated the allotted space and left him to unwrap, fluff, and install his creation. Returning half an hour later, I was greatly amused by what I saw.

Bill’s bird was a real mieskeit, a total Marty Feldman of a peacock. It was a strangely un-majestic bird, an enigma, a mutant. I asked Bill where he found this un-peacock.

“Oh, young fella, it’s not a peacock,” he explained. “I was cycling through Central Park, and I found a dead seagull, and I thought, Perfect! For Diana’s show! So I took it home and stuffed it and added goose feathers and peacock feathers! Voilà!”

With a little careful lighting and judicious angling, Bill’s seagull delivered a remarkably good impersonation of a regal peacock. Bill had taught me an important lesson: When in doubt, make sure you are totally backlit.