Double Dandy: Patrick McDonald & Jim Howard on Bill Cunningham, Hat Travel and Rocking the Boat
In a world where denim and sneakers rule the streets, Patrick McDonald stands out, and not simply because of his seemingly endless array of Rod Keenan hats. Known as the New York Dandy, McDonald’s impeccably fanciful style has made him a favorite subject of New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, whose 50 years of capturing street fashion on camera is the subject of the new documentary film Bill Cunningham New York, opening this week in San Francisco.
A former model who’s also worked as a fashion designer, fashion writer and – more recently – as a reality television star on Bravo TV’s "Launch My Line," McDonald appears in the Cunningham film and also happens to be the only living subject featured in illustrator Jim Howard’s paper doll book Four Famous Dandies, which also profiles the personal style of Oscar Wilde, Beau Brummell and the Duke of Windsor.
During a visit to San Francisco last week for, among other things, a book signing and the Sui Generis Illa Boutique grand opening party, we caught up with McDonald and Howard before the festivities to chat about the dandy life, the documentary on Cunningham and the intricacies of hat travel.
7x7: Tell us how you got involved in the film Bill Cunningham New York.
McDonald: They asked me because, over the last two decades, I have been photographed by Bill, I think probably the most-photographed man by Bill, I think….I kinda know.
7x7: What do you think today’s street style photographers and bloggers could learn from Cunningham’s legacy?
McDonald: As he says in the movie, let the streets talk to you. Learn from what you see on the street, do not follow trends. Do not follow what everybody else says. I think bloggers have a tendency to go out on the street…as I say in the paper doll book, life is a stage, so dress for it.
7x7: How did you end up being photographed so frequently?
McDonald: I was photographed so much because I used to work on 57th Street in New York, and I used to live on 56th Street on the East Side, and he used to live on 56th in the Carnegie Apartments on the West Side, so that was my neighborhood….if I walk by Bill Cunningham on a daily basis, that’s just my way to go to work. I think I caught Bill’s eye because I wear hats, and I’m a little flamboyant, to say the least.
Howard: Really? I hadn’t noticed.
7x7: When did the idea of being a dandy first come into your life?
Howard: I was called Dapper Dan for so many years that I resented it. And somewhere along the way, I said, “Call me a dandy, but don’t call me Dapper Dan. I hate that.” It’s sort of down-home, country-fied.
McDonald: I think it came to me when I got my first box of Cracker Jacks, and I opened it up, and I liked how the sailor looked on the cover. I liked how he was dressed. And I got a little toy that was a little metal bird brooch, and I put that on my little jacket for school, and that’s how it began. And actually I heard the word dandy for the first time in the James Cagney movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, and I loved how he looked on stage with the mix of the plaid vest and the striped pants, and the way they dressed up in the movie with the top hats.
Howard: And the fit.
McDonald: Exactly. I was fascinated by it.
7x7: How old were you?
McDonald: I would say about six, five or six….I always admired people that dressed up. I think the bottom line for a dandy, as Bill says in the movie, he who seeks beauty shall find it. And I think the whole thing about being a dandy is seeking beauty in our daily lives, and it just so happens to be how we present ourselves.
7x7: Why do you think people find dandies to be so fascinating?
Howard: It’s just so unusual now because the style of dressing has become so comfortable, and people pay no attention to how they dress. They just want to be comfortable and casual. Basically, they’re in uniforms.
McDonald: [Dressing up] used to be a common practice.
Howard: But now everybody else is afraid. But why are they afraid?
McDonald: I think they’re afraid because people want to fit in so badly. And it’s become, as Bill says in the movie, a cookie cutter generation of dressing. They want to do what everybody else is doing because they don’t want to rock the boat. Rock the boat! Dandies rock the boat.
7x7: Where else are you planning to visit while you’re here?
McDonald: I’m going to the Balenciaga exhibit tomorrow with my friend Tatiana Sorokko.
Howard: I went Tuesday.
McDonald: I love San Francisco. My mother was born in San Francisco…my twin brother lives here…He works at Wilkes Bashford.
7x7: If you were standing next to each other, would be know that he was your twin?
McDonald: You would know we were twins, but we look different. He’s a little more conservative, but he dresses quite well.
7x7: You’re known for wearing a hat wherever you go. What’s travel like with so many hats?
McDonald: Hatboxes. You carry them onboard the plane in hatboxes. And you try to pile them up and you stuff them in paper. I was just in Paris for Fashion Week, and I was there for four days, and I brought four hats, and it was not easy. But I managed.
Howard: I take one hat when I travel, and I wear it on the plane. That’s the safest thing. Otherwise it gets crammed up in the overhead. I’ve had a couple of hats destroyed that way.
7x7: I can imagine that that could be dicey.
Howard: Everybody has sweatshirts and jackets, and there’s no sensibility about what you’re putting up there anymore.
7x7: And people are serious about cramming their stuff up there.
McDonald: Oh, I’ve had a confrontation over that. I was coming back from Paris, and I bought a tricorn hat from a costume store for the Paris opera. And I wanted that hat. I had it all in tissue in the bag, and someone tried to take a wheelie thing and just shove…and I go, don’t you see that there’s a shopping bag there? And [he goes] well, is there something fragile in there? Yes there is, you could at least say, whose bag is this? You just shoved it. I carried it on my lap the whole way.
7x7: That’s dedication to style. Who is your hat by?
McDonald: Rod Keenan. He makes most of my hats. I am loyal to Rod.
7x7: You seem to have done just about everything there is to do in the fashion industry. You’ve designed, you’ve written, you’ve modeled. Do you have a favorite part of the industry?
McDonald: You know what? It’s hard to even answer that.
Howard: Wearing it! Wearing it.
McDonald. You’re right. Shopping is where I’m most comfortable. Wearing is where I’m most comfortable.
7x7: How did you choose the four dandies in your book?
Howard: The focus of course was Patrick. He started it…There are of course many more.
McDonald: We could have volume two, three and four.
7x7: Would you do another reality show again?
McDonald: I would. Maybe it should be called the escapades of a dandy.