“There's a good one,” said the blonde woman, appearing at my elbow suddenly. I looked where she was pointing and saw a bearded man wearing an elaborate hat that had apparently begun life as a designer handbag and then moved on from there. She was right. It was a good one. I raised my camera and snapped a picture.
A moment later, she surged out of the crowd again.
“Are you the new Billy Cunningham?” she asked me.
“I'm sorry?” I said, somewhat nonplussed.
“Billy Cunningham. You know who Billy Cunningham was, don't you?”
“Well, of course,” I said, belatedly putting two and two together.
“But there are probably a million Bill Cunninghams here today,” I added, looking at the crowd of photographers, all snapping with everything from smartphones to DSLRs.
“There was only one Billy Cunningham,” she told me.
“He was a friend of mine. He took my picture hundreds of times.” And then she was gone again.
It’s part of the charm of New York that you can randomly run into, say, one of Bill Cunningham's former models. It’s also part of the charm of New York that it has these periodic outbursts of carefully planned public madness, like the West Village’s Halloween Parade, Chinatown’s Chinese New Year procession or Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade. People here definitely like dressing up and taking to the streets.
But while there's often a certain amount of overlap, and you often see some of the same faces, each event has its own particular character. I used to joke that the difference between the Mermaid Parade and the Halloween Parade was that at the Mermaid Parade you had to be either a slutty mermaid or a slutty pirate, whereas at the Halloween Parade you could be a slutty anything. But that’s reductive and not strictly accurate. There's more to each event and its peculiar costume codes than that.
The Easter Bonnet Festival too has its own particular character. The emphasis is on the hats, of course, with the regulars struggling to outdo each other in scale and elaborateness. Some people show up wearing traditional, if sometimes outsized, bonnets. Others decorate their heads with surreal explosions of color. Some hats stress the Easter theme, with eggs and chickens and bunnies worked into the design. Some are just as large and outlandish as their creators can make them.
The parade also has its own distinct costume subcultures. It seems to be quite a queer-friendly event, with a fair amount of elegant drag, and usually a few Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in there somewhere. And there are also always a few people, mostly but not exclusively white, who wear period costume that evokes a prosperous middle-class past. Most merely hint at the style and aesthetic of the moneyed New York elite of the '20s or '30s, but one or two go all the way, turning out in meticulous and spectacular period costume.
This year, the fun was scheduled to run until 4pm. Around 2pm, however, another group of inveterate hat-wearers, the New York Police Department, decided that Fifth Avenue needed to be given back to the cars and that it was time to call it a day. A line of police vans formed and began to advance slowly up the street, preceded by a vanguard of cops shouting at everyone to get out of the road. The hat enthusiasts resisted, then gave way, reluctantly climbing back onto the sidewalk to let the traffic come through.
I lingered on the steps of St Patrick’s for a little longer, shooting a few final shots. Then, like Bill Cunningham, I got on my bicycle and pedaled away.