Bill Cunningham, New York was, was without a doubt, my favorite film of 2011. It made me cry four—four!—times. So when award season rolled around and it wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary, I was convinced the ballots had been switched. If I was in charge, it would have won all the awards.
The documentary itself is simple: a humble street style photographer reluctantly discusses his long career. Distinguished members of the mainstream fashion industry sing his praises; colleagues from former jobs extol his superhuman work ethic; the eclectic subjects of his photographs talk about the effect Bill Cunninghmam has had on their lives. All of this plays out against a classic David and Goliath type of struggle. Bill is one of the last remaining residents living in a rent-controlled apartment over Carnegie Hall. The owners want him and his few neighbors out; they are planning to rent their units as office space for greater profit. Will they force him, an 82 year old living legend, to leave his modest space for a new and unfamiliar condo? YOU JUST HAVE TO WATCH THE MOVIE TO FIND OUT.
Not only is there a real drama to the documentary—what will happen to Bill when he’s removed from his element?—but you have a central character that you just care so much about. Bill Cunningham is an unbelievable man. He is honest, hard working, and committed to his work above all else. He is a true role model.
If you are not already familiar with Bill Cunningham, a brief history: Bill Cunningham is the very first street style photographer in the most modern sense of that term. His photographs of people on the streets of New York have been appearing in the New York Times since the late 1970s.
Bill is completely unfazed by celebrity: he is just as likely to publish a photo of Lauren Santo Domingo as he is to publish a photo of a frat boy wearing an Urban Outfitters t-shirt. He wants to show his readers an accurate portrayal of life in New York streets. “I see something, and then I see it again, and I’ll think ah—an idea,” he says, opposed to deciding on an idea and then only photographing people who conform to it.
Bill hates the idea of money and materialism. He routinely refuses to accept money for freelance work. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do,” he patiently explains. When photographing society events, he won’t even accept a glass of water, let alone wine or food. “Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom is the most expensive,” he says. Bill recalls when he worked as the fashion editor for the original Details magazine: “I didn’t take money, Annie, so you couldn’t tell me what to do,” he gleefully recalls as he shows off the hundreds of pages he regularly published on trend stories.
The film seems to break down the identity of Bill Cunningham into the few material possessions that define him. No one can live a completely ascetic life in New York City. The first is his apartment: a tiny, tiny space above Carnegie Hall. His mattress perches above a few milk crates. His walls are lined with filing cabinets containing his negatives. The bathroom is in the hallway; the kitchen is non-existent. Seeing his apartment, you know this is not a man who does anything for the glamour. He may value outlandish designs on the people he photographs, but he insists on functionality and resourcefulness for himself.
His clothes, too, represent his commitment to function over fashion. When he goes to Paris for fashion week he stocks up on the solid blue jackets worn by the French garbage collectors. They are cheap and hold up against the constant friction of the camera strap around his neck. When it rains, he throws a garbage bag over it. Sometimes he buys a poncho from the dollar store that inevitably rips. He just duct tapes it back together.
Of course his camera is central to his identity as well. His camera functions as his eyes and mouth—he is often silent, discreetly trying to get a good shot from an unobtrusive distance. His first camera was a gift from a colleague who told him to use the camera the way he used a pen and paper for notes. “It isn’t really what I think—it’s what I see,” he explains.
And of course, the bike. Bill gets everywhere by bike. He’s on bike number 29—the 28 previous bikes were stolen. At Carnegie Hall he keeps it in a closet overnight. When he is shown a potential new apartment, he only asks the doorman where he will keep his bike.
These elements give you an idea of what sort of person Bill is, but it is his principles that are his most defining and endearing characteristic. First and foremost is his hatred of declaring fashion “in” or “out.” Bill briefly worked for Women’s Wear Daily doing a version of what would become his page in the Times, photographing women wearing high fashion on the street. WWD rewrote his copy to mock the ordinary women. Bill quit without hesitation.
In an interview with Harold Koda, Koda explains that Bill thinks everything is equally “in”—he’s not interested in deciding what is fashionable; he wants to reflect what is genuinely a trend on the street. Magazines are constantly telling us what we find fashionable. I feel like I am always seeing a headline like, “The pencil skirt is everywhere!” What they mean is, “Buy this pencil skirt from our advertisers to prove this headline right.” I sometimes feel exasperated by the amount of cover stories proclaiming whichever celebrity has a movie coming out to be “The Next Great Style Icon.” What they mean is, “Famous White Woman Leaves House in Well-Fitting Clothes, Please Do Not Steal Her Latest Movie From The Internet.”
Bill provides an escape from all that. Watching this film, I felt like I could trust Bill’s choices because he is motivated only by the clothes. When he attends Paris Fashion Week, he is presented with an award from the French Federation of Couture for his photography. He tries to find the words to explain his motivation for photographing street style. “I’m not interested in the celebrities with their free dresses. It’s not important. Look at the clothes!” He exclaims to laughter and applause. “It’s not the photographer. It’s the women,” he says, before summing up his personal philosophy with tears in his eyes. “He who seeks beauty shall find it.”
There is beauty in fashion. I know this sounds like an oxymoron—isn’t all fashion beauty?—but it sometimes doesn’t feel that way. Fashion is, to put it harshly, a multi-billion dollar industry that promotes waste and consumerism often at the detriment of employees, customers, and the planet. The fashion industry is often an ugly thing.
But there are always alternatives available, particularly in fashion journalism. Not all fashion writers are writing about the philosophical dilemma of purchasing a Fendi baguette bag. There is a huge, wonderful, intelligent community of people who love fashion and work in fashion not because of status or power but because of the expression and history and, yes, the beauty of it all. Bill explains this in footage of an earlier interview. “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
I hope it’s not grandiose to say I saw Worn in Bill Cunningham, New York. Like Bill, Serah-Marie and Gwen saw a hole in mainstream fashion journalism. They knew that there was an entire world of people being ignored for not fitting into a teeny tiny mould, and instead of giving up, they stuck to their principles and made their own alternative. For that I am eternally grateful. I felt the same way when I watched BCNY for the first time—I am really and truly grateful that the world has a fashion photographer like Bill Cunningham.
We are drowning in the most pedestrian advice—don’t wear this, never wear those shoes with that purse, and so on. There is just. So. Much. Stuff. Buying into this prescriptive method of fashion is enough to bankrupt and exhaust you. Bill Cunningham is a leader in a revolutionary way of thinking, and I implore everyone interested in fashion to consider his central message. Anyone can buy into the destructive ideas about fashion. It’s the cheapest thing. The liberty, the freedom, to wear whatever you want—to ignore the dos and don’ts, to just get dressed in a way that makes you happy—that’s the most expensive thing.
text by Haley Mlotek