Bill Cunningham Knows What Fashion Is For

The last few days I have been pretty much incapacitated by a sore neck. It sounds a lot less awful than it was! Owie! I couldn't do much of anything useful, but the upside was that I got to watch some Netflix -- specifically a documentary about New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.

He is an amazing character. Even over 80 years old, he hops on his bike and zips up and downtown, day and night, to take pictures -- pictures of well-dressed people on the street, society types at charity events (wow there are a lot of these!), and trends that he notices happening in real time.

He lives very simply in a studio in Carnegie Hall, with dozens of file cabinets full of the photos he's taken over the years, his mattress on a pallet on the floor. He's just completely consumed -- in what seems to me the purest and sweetest possible way -- with his work. How else could he get away with something like this?

I loved this film -- both getting to know a little about Bill and also seeing all the different eccentric people and wonderful looks he's photographed over the years. (Check out the image search for his name!)

And I love hearing what he thinks about how things have changed -- after covering five decades of fashion, he is perhaps more well equipped to say Thoughtful Things About Clothes than just about anyone. There's one particular segment where he describes post-war couture in the most evocative way:

Clothes gave women enormous security through the elegance of cut and taste and refinement. There was nothing frivolous about them.

This is followed by a vintage commercial in which captivating women in dramatic, glittering frocks gather on a grand staircase, and the voiceover tells us, "To equal your beauty, marvel of marvels, that is quite impossible." In French. Swoon! And also, mind blown! Because in 2011, the subtext is less "you are unspeakably exquisite" and more "no, you won't fit into our clothes, nor can you afford them, so how about a $30 lipstick or $200 wallet?"


What I like most about this film is just the way that Bill sees fashion. I like what he notices and how he articulates it. And I like how he pays attention to the clothes and the people wearing them, and lets the money/status stuff slide right out of the frame. "Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life," he says, and he's right -- we all gotta wear something. I admire the way Bill values and showcases the expressive, beautiful, and fun ways we suit up.

Plus, Iris Apfel is in it!