Bill Cunningham New York

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The best fashion show is definitely on the street – always has been and always will be.

Bill Cunningham

How excited about fashion can a twenty-something Australian engineer get about street fashion in New York when friends mine say to me, “You dress so poor!” – and not in an ironic sort of way?

However, I recently watched Richard Press‘ delightful documentary – Bill Cunningham New York – after a tip from a menopausal middle-manager came good.

Perhaps because the doco is only partly about fashion, or perhaps it is not about fashion at all.  Nevertheless, the film follows octogenarian street fashion photograph Bill Cunningham around the sidewalks of New York, to the high-society parties for the (oh so) rich and famous, to the catwalks of Paris – where Bill shoots for the New York Times.

Bill waits on street corners “It’s always the hope that you’ll see some marvelous exotic bird of paradise, meaning a very elegant stunning woman or someone wearing something terrific” and then it may be some shoes, or a hat, or matching pairs – but he quick snaps his manual film camera and he’s captured it – a moment, an image!  Probably only because of his age, and trademark blue jacket he doesn’t get assaulted for taking snaps without permission.  But the fashionistas seem to relish the attention lauding the praise of his eyes.

Bill shooting on bike

Just a regular day at the office

Saying things like: “I don’t know how to work, I only know how to have fun everyday”; and “If we all went out looking like a slob like me, it would be a pretty dreary world” – it is hard not to like Bill.  Energetic, honest, excitable, gifted and level headed, his passion for beauty is engaging.  Unlike other pretentious artists, Bill seems to enjoy his simple bike, blue cardigan and his humble, pokey little apartment – sleeping on the floor next to filing-case after filing case filled with a lifetimes’ worth of film.

Press shoots the film with both an energy and an honesty.  Alternating between shots of Bill at work; shots of Bill’s work; and interviews from upper crust celebrities including flamboyant author and socialite Tom Wolfe.

However one particular scene is unique – Bill is asked two questions – one about his personal relationships; and the other about religion.  Attending church every week, Bill is perhaps much like many of the older US generation, and yet it is the only time in the rollicking 83 minutes of footage that he is lost for words.  Struggling, after a substantial pause, and looking away from the camera, “It is something I need”.  Bill gives the impression that he values his Catholic faith in a deep and personal way; and yet, humbly does not want this to distance him from his friends and colleagues – from progressive NYers that may not hold such regard for Christianity.  A man of opposites, Bill straddles the fence – mingling with the Bold and the Beautiful, while not being seduced to compromise his beautiful spirit and love for the NY – “It’s hard to play a straight game in this city”.

In my workplace where us engineers ironically look more similar on casual Fridays than weekdays when the good old’e check shirts come out. Yet, I now feel somewhat inspired to be a little bit more flamboyant with my ‘fashion’, as Bill quips near the end of the film – “Lots of people have taste; but few have enough courage”.

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