Style icon: Bill Cunningham and why fashion is so important

by Sylvia

Bill Cunningham

Sometimes I worry about the superficialness of fashion and whether or not I should be spending my time on more ‘important’ things. But then today I watched the amazing movie Bill Cunningham New York. And I was amazed.

Here is a man who is so humble, so endearing and yet all that seems to be important to him is his work and fashion. It was more important than love, money or anything. As he says: ‘it’s all about the clothes”. So today I’m featuring a different kind of fashion style icon: 84 year old street photographer Bill Cunningham who currently works for the New York Times.

Anna Wintour

It is clear that he has many admirers. One of them is Anna Wintour, who says:

“we all get dressed for Bill….. or he ignores you, which is death”.

Bill can easily ignore you. He doesn’t care about celebrity, status or anything. If he doesn’t like the clothes, he will not photograph you.

She also says:

“I’m so amazed. We are sitting in the same room, but he sees something on the street or on the runway that completely missed all of us. And in six months time, that will be a trend”. And she is just one of the many personalities that make an appearance, all in awe of this man who has been photographing people on the streets since the 60s.

Why is he still so passionate about his work, even now when he is already over 80?

In his own words: “The hope that you see some marvelous, exotic bird of paradise, meaning a very elegant, strong woman or someone wearing something terrific”.

Bill prefers to photograph people when they are unguarded and natural: “When it rains it’s a whole different scene. When there is a blizard it’s the best time”.

“I like the streets to speak to me. In order for the streets to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is”.

His columns in the New York Times

Bill has 2 columns:  One in which he shows how socialites, celebrities and other prominent people dress at the most spectacular parties and fundraisers and one where he shows the trends on the streets. He still shoots everything on film and is very involved on how it all appears on the page. The spread is usually themed around a particular theme.

“You have to do 3 things. You don’t get the most information from anyone. You have to photograph the collections. You have to photograph the women on the street who have bought the things and how they are wearing them and you have to go to the evening events. You can’t report to the public unless you have seen it all.”

His life

Bill Cunningham New York

He now lives in an apartment overlooking Central Park after having lived and being evacuated from a tiny studio in Carnegie Hall where he lived for many years and which is featured in the film. This studio is is full of filing cabinets, where he keeps negatives of every picture he has ever taken. The bathroom is in the hall and there is no need for a clothes cupboard as he only has very few. Bill goes everywhere on his bicycle and will ride from uptown to downtown to visit events. In the meantime you get a glimpse of New York life on the streets. It’s given me a real desire to discover New York on bicycle next time I visit!

Details magazine

He did a lot of work for Details magazine and spent days on fantastic photo spreads. All unpaid. Money does not seem to have any importance to Bill at all.

“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what do. That’s the key…”

When Details was finally sold to Conde Nast, Bill refused to cash his cheque. He even refuses to accept just a simple glass of water at events, as he does not want to be compromised in any way.

“It’s keeping you at a distance from what you’re doing, so you can be more objective” .

I am also amazed about his relaxed take on life. He seems to take each day as it comes. Not even his eviction from his studio in Carnegy Hill seemed to bother him much.

On ethics

He also has very high ethical standards. He resigned from Women’s Wear Daily when the copy was changed on a spread he had made of women on the street wearing runway looks. Instead of admiring the creativity of the women wearing the looks, as he had intended, the magazine instead made fun of them.  “The idea of evaluation of one image over another or one person over another was not something he subscribes to as a person”  says Harold Koda, Curator of the Costume Institute The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the modern world

In addition to his regular columns, he now does a spoken review of  ‘on the the street this week’ as well. Have a listen at one of the most recent episodes. The enthusiasm, joy and passion for fashion just shines through his words. Below is also a trailer of the film, so you will get an idea about the man himself.

Why we need fashion

Finally some words of wisdom:

“[I don’t understand] why the world sometimes sees fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous, but the point is in fact that fashion ….. it’s the armour to survive the reality of every day life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It will be like doing away with civilisation”.

Enough said.

Bill Cunningham is an inspiration and if you want to be inspired too then I can assure you will be, after watching this marvellous film which you can buy at Amazon.

Do you agree with Bill? Why do you think we need fashion?

1 Joni@WalkingColors

I’m a little surprised when they mentioned that he hardly has any clothes himself. I guess his camera and eye is the most important thing and fashion is important to his work rather than to himself. I admire his dedication to his passion. That’s what really inspires me even if a person has no fashion sense or doesn’t care about appearance. Like Patti Smith. I’m sure Bill would pass her by on his bicycle as far as looks go. But she’s one of the most talented passionate humans on the planet standing in her tattered coat and unkempt hair. I’d have to say that fashion is important to the person who loves to express creativity that way. Otherwise, if one doesn’t enjoy it than I see no need for it at all. To each his own.

2 Sylvia

thanks for your feedback Joni! Yes it’s true. That is a great contradiction but he does thoroughly enjoy how others look. You are also right in saying that it’s his passion that is so inspiring. There are indeed many inspiring and talented people that have no interest in fashion at all and I can admire that too. But as a visual person, I know I have to wear something that makes me feel good and I always so appreciate it when others make an effort and give me something wonderful to look at.

3 Joni@WalkingColors

I would be bored without clothes! Fashion is definitely a passion for me. 😉

4 my thrifty closet

interesting guy, he treats fashion like art, very inspiring story. It makes me enjoy fashion more and not just a way of wearing our clothes. Life without fashion is boring. And fashion doesn’t always means spending lots of money, it is a form of creative expression to me.


5 Sylvia

Exactly Mongs. And you are such a perfect example on showing us how to be creative on a small budget and have fun with fashion!

6 Greetje

I wonder for years why human beings need culture. Art, music, fashion. Apparently that is the way we are made. It might be so that not every human being needs fashion, but I certainly do. It is my one and only creativity. And it does not matter whether I am good at it. Just need it as an outlet. It is a passion.
For Bill, photographing fashion was his creativity, his passion. Not fashion for himself.
I like passion.

7 Sylvia

Me too! People with a big passion or magnificent skill are always so inspiring.

8 The Style Crone

I’ve been following Bill’s column for years; it’s my first pleasure on Sunday mornings. As you probably know, he began his life as a milliner. He is a fascinating and mysterious man, and someone who has brightened the lives of many, including myself. Thank you for featuring him, as he deserves all the recognition that he’s now receiving.

9 Sylvia

Yes that’s right I forgot to mention that detail! There is a wonderful part in the film where this part of his life is highlighted. I’m late to truly discover him. But better late than never!

10 Kathleen Lisson

I like that film as well. I smiled when I saw the part about how he was so particular about the type of jacket he wore. He has a sense of personal style and communicates something about himself through his fashion, too.

11 Sylvia

Yes even Iris Apfel commented that she actually thought he had great style! He is now practical first and foremost.

12 Kathleen Lisson

Agreed. Such a treasure for New York city fashion lovers.

13 Heather Fonseca

My husband and I saw the film when it first came out. Considering that we go to see movies at a theater once a year this was a big deal. The movie didn’t disappoint. It was fabulous and you just can’t help but fall in love with bill. Isn’t he just so wonderful?

14 Sylvia

He is! And I will certainly follow him more closely.

15 Suzanne

Oh Sylvia – this is a wonderful write-up! My life was so hectic and full of changes this Summer I never saw this when you posted it. Now I have to see the film. He is a remarkable man – one from a generation that is fast passing and with a level of integrity we will not see again. He does not care about money or fame or what you are – he admires fashion and creativity and views everyone on an even plain. If only we could all do that! He never sold out. He is amazing.

16 Sylvia

You will love this film Suzanne. I still count it as the best film I have seen this year. Truly inspiring!

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