Personal heroes: Bill Cunningham

I finally got around to checking out Bill Cunningham: New York.  Boy oh boy, was that movie a revelation for me.  As soon as it began to roll, I felt an instant tug of recognition and respect for Bill and his philosophy towards fashion.

Bill is, first and foremost, a street fashion photographer.  Although he does work taking pictures of runway shows and high life parties, his real love is bare-bones street photography.  His belief is  that “The best fashion show is on the street”, and he spends most of his time documenting the stylistic adventures of everyday New Yorkers.

Bill’s outlook is a breath of fresh air to me.  Although I adore fashion, there is a cloak of cattiness that tends to surround the fashion world.  When you talk about fashion, inevitably the conversation turns to what you should or shouldn’t be wearing, who wore an outfit better and the “rules” of fashion.  And that has always grated on me, because I feel that fashion shouldn’t be about The Rules and Should and Should Not.  To me, fashion is a beautiful form of self expression.  And it was wonderful to see that one of the most respected fashion photographers felt the same way.

Bill Cunningham’s work is a joyous celebration of fashion.  It’s about weeding out a gloriously stylish individual from a crowd and capturing them on film.  It was such a pleasure to watch this strange little man cavorting about the streets of New York, snapping people of all ages, all sizes, all colours and with a rainbow of styles.  For him, fashion isn’t limited to the young and rich, fashion is a living, breathing entity that lives in the people on the street.  Like me, Bill Cunningham believes that fashion is for everyone.

Another things I thought was brilliant about Bill is his approach to trends.  Ordinarily, trends in fashion are used to dictate what we “should” be wearing.  A fashion magazine or designer chooses an item, a colour, a fabric and decrees that this is The Thing To Wear.  Bill’s approach is the exact opposite.  Rather than telling people what they should wear, Bill looks at what people actually are wearing.  He spends countless hours on the streets, looking for patterns in what the passers-by are wearing and reporting on them.  In this way, he keeps fashion on the ground, giving the everyman the power to dictate the trends simply by wearing what appeals to them.

Bill’s fascination with the style of real people spoke to me on a deep level.  It tickled my own adoration of fashion and caused a spark of realisation.  Like Bill, I’m not terribly interested in celebrity fashion, in people who follow the fashion rules wearing what they’ve been told to wear.  What I want to see is what real people with similar paycheques to mine who have access to similar stores put on their bodies.  I want to see what real people are wearing, and marvel in the creativity and beauty of actual men and women.  And that’s why I love fashion blogging.  Because it gives you a peek into the wardrobes of genuine people and allows you to peek at what they live their lives in.  Part of the reason that I began taking outfit pictures and sharing them via this blog is that I wanted to showcase my own style, and show people that you don’t have to be rich or particularly clever to express yourself through fashion.  And I wanted to encourage others to take that leap and find their own sartorial path.

Something that has always stung me about the fashion industry is the pressure it places on women to look a certain way, and the scathingness towards those who do not fit the mould.  In this film, a friend mentions that Bill’s work isn’t about comparing people.  It isn’t about talking about “who wore it better”, it’s about celebrating people and style.  I was heartened to hear one of Bill’s colleagues tell of how he left a magazine that used a series of his photographs of everyday women in designer clothing to poke fun at how the women didn’t measure up to the runway models in those same styles.  I couldn’t help but smile as Bill swatted away a young man who tried to edit the ageing decolletage of one of his subjects, saying that she was beautiful and it would be a shame to cover her up.  This is a man who sees beauty in all sizes, ages and colours.  And that is such a far throw from what’s usually presented in a documentary about fashion.  It gave me cause to cheer.

Bill Cunningham is a hero of mine because he has paved the way for fashion bloggers like myself.  He is a positive force who promotes what I believe to be the true essence of style.  And he’s just so darn cheeky.  It’s hard not to like him, really.

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