He’s your friendly old neighbour, the kindly man who always stops to talk to you at your local coffee shop, the elderly gentleman who’ll give up his seat for you on a crowded train. Yes, there’s a certain, likeable familiarity we can identify in a man like Bill Cunningham.
Indeed it cannot be denied that at 82 years of age and dressed in a twenty-dollar blue workman’s coat; bicycle-riding Bill makes for an unlikely fashion commentator and style anthropologist.
For decades, Bill has chronicled trends in both everyday street fashion and at high society events for the New York Times ‘Style’ section. The eponymous Zeitgeist documentary, ‘Bill Cunningham New York’, presents as a part-scrapbook, part-tribute to the life and photography of Bill Cunningham and his contribution to fashion in the 20th to 21st century. The sheer importance and influence of Bill’s work is made clear from the very beginning of the film, as is the respect he has garnered from some of the industry’s most iconic individuals.
“We all get dressed for Bill”, testifies the infamously icy, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour; proving that even the fashion Gods bow down to Bill. Wintour alongside other prominent New York personalities, including: Tom Wolfe, Brooke Astor, Anette De la Renta and David Rockefeller who are all unanimously connected in their mutual love and respect for Bill and his photography. Joined by some of Bill’s closest friends and associates such as: Kim Hastreiter and Editta Sherman - the interviewees in the film paint an endearing portrait of Bill through their anecdotes and affectionate praise, which ultimately work to canonize him as a modern-day legend in photographic journalism. As poignantly stated in Rotten Tomatoes’ review of the film, “Cunningham’s enormous body of work is more reliable than any catwalk as an expression of time, place and individual flair”.
Perhaps one of Bill’s most remarkable qualities is his inexorable passion for his work and unrelenting desire to share with the world what Harold Koda (chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways”. A simple man of simple tastes, Bill leads an uncomplicated, no-frills existence and this transcends in both his professional and personal environments. He works without assistants or camera crew: just Bill, his SLR and his bicycle.
Whilst the subject matter of Bill’s photography and subsequent core of his passion, presents as a flamboyant hotchpotch of models, socialites, eccentrics and avant-gardists – Bill himself maintains a guarded distance from everything around him and remains first and foremost, the humble observer. Despite his frequent declarations of love for fashion, the opulence of elite style and fearlessness of freedom dressing, he is very much a conservative man of routine and modest taste. He seeks beauty and individualism in others’ fashion, yet does not participate in it himself.
Maybe this is the key behind Bill’s brilliance: he is infatuated with fashion but not consumed by it like so many other “slaves to fashion” before him. He gives himself completely to this pursuit, but without losing his sense of self within it. As Carina Chocano stated in her review of ‘Bill Cunningham New York’, “if the film suggests that there’s something bittersweet about a life dedicated to a single pursuit cultivated with an almost religious fervor, it also stands in awe of its subject’s seemingly inexhaustible, self-abnegating capacity to remain attuned to the expression of others”.
‘Bill Cunningham New York’ is an insightful and evocative portrayal of a dedicated artist, with a pure, impenetrable passion for fashion, which according to Bill, “is the armor to survive everyday life”.
'Bill Cunningham New York' is currently showing at Palace and Nova cinemas in Melbourne.