Fashion Oblate: Bill Cunningham & The Invention Of Street Style


Before there was the Sartorialist, before there was Garance Doré, before Tommy Ton and the Face Hunter, way back before anyone thought to put the words “street” and “style” together, there was Bill Cunningham.

The Boston-born Cunningham started shooting street fashion in 1966, when a photographer friend of the young fashion journalist gave him a $35 camera and advised him to use it like a notebook. Captivated by the New York’s clothing soup him ever since, Cunningham has photographed a weekly “On The Street” fashion column for the Sunday Styles section ever since a couple good shots of Greta Garbo’s nutria coat caught the section editor’s eye in 1978. Cunningham has a passionate, discriminating, but stubbornly democratic love of fashion. He’s as likely to be captivated by the turn of a workman’s trouser cuffs as he is by the twist of a Balenciaga heel; despite a lifetime spent working in the industry, starting off as a stocker at Bonwit Teller, Cunningham retains an outsider’s eye. He loves shooting on 5th Ave., where he says you can see the whole world go by, if you’re patient enough. But he’s been known to get on trains to go clear across the city if he thinks he’s missed a shot that’ll fit with his week’s theme.

Lauren Collins, who profiled Cunningham in this week’s Style issue of the New Yorker, reveals that the photographer, who turns 80 this month, lives alone in the Carnegie Hall Tower. He sleeps on a piece of foam that tops a board propped up by milk crates, and has access to a shared bathroom and kitchen. He is most often dressed in a utilitarian blue cotton smock — like those some garment workers still wear, with thimbles and embroidery scissors in the pockets and needles holding many colored threads in a row down one sleeve — and he generally gets around town on his red bicycle. When he travels to Paris, his editor at the Times, Trip Gabriel, reports that Cunningham “insists on staying at a cheapo hotel that has no phones in the rooms.” He takes all his pictures with a well-used Nikon; in the years since the Times photojournalism department went digital, Cunningham has processed his film at a 1-hour photo lab on 43rd St.

Cunningham is a quiet man who works in the loud, twinned industries of fashion and media. But what captivates him is still the simple aesthetic joy of noticing what people wear, and identifying commonalities. “I don’t really see people — I see clothes,” he says. And he has little patience for the sky-is-falling rhetoric of America’s allegedly faltering style. “People say everybody’s a slob. Ridiculous! There are marvelously dressed women you see at a quarter to eight, going to business. When people say fashion is no more, they’re ridiculous! It’s as good as it ever was.”

Cunningham has perfect recall of individual ensembles — what they were, when they were worn, what the person was doing — that were of particular interest to him, going all the way back to the 1960s. “I’m looking for something that has beauty,” he says, simply. And he hasn’t the heart for criticizing the sartorial choices of private citizens. “Dos and Don’ts? I don’t think there are any don’ts! What right does one have?”

In the profile, Collins mentions that Cunningham has often been called a “fashion monk” — but instead classifies him as an oblate, “a layperson who has dedicated his life to the tribe without becoming a part of it.” And it’s this crucial distinction that sets him apart from the current popular crop of street style bloggers, whose work Cunningham’s pioneering in many ways made possible. There’s often a mind-numbing sameness to the outfits recorded on various of the well-read blogs that chronicle the styles of the world’s cities; it’s the young, good-looking subject, wearing the cool outfit with the 80s thrift-store touches, shooting a doleful look down the camera’s lens. Reading their offerings, the overwhelming impression is one of a flattened world where all the hip young things have the same ideas about how to dress, whether they happen to live in Mexico City or Berlin. The stylistic tranche being diaried is limited. You can’t imagine Jak & Jil finding anything of interest at the Puerto Rican Day Parade or in the outfits of tourists — two things Cunningham loves.

Although a few street style blogs, like Garance Doré’s, seem to share Cunningham’s enthusiasm for fashion as it’s worn by real people — and his knack for identifying unthought-of trends — a lot of street style photobloggers behave as though they’re (im)patiently waiting for their place at the fashion table. And why shouldn’t they? Scott Schuman, aka the Sartorialist, has been featured in a Gap campaign and himself photographed the new DKNY Jeans campaign. Jak & Jil’s Tommy Ton (who says of Doré and Schuman, “They’re interested in taking a beautiful photograph. I’m just a freak for the Balmain and the Balenciaga!”) nonetheless attracted the attention of the Asian retailer Lane Crawford, who asked Ton to step into Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin’s shoes and shoot, presumably at least somewhat beautiful, images for its next campaign.

Cunningham eschews such trappings of the profession. He lives for the next great shot, the next strange confluence of colors and shapes, the next windstorm that turns umbrellas into spiny exoskeletons, the next rainstorm that shows the wealthy that the waters don’t magically part. “Oh, it’s marvelous — it just rearranges the whole fashion scene when the wind blows down from the top of the Avenue,” says Cunningham. “Six-, seven-hundred-dollar shoes, and they’re all in the slush — hey, it’s pretty peculiar! Nothing like a good blizzard, kid, and you get pictures.”

Which is not to say that Cunningham doesn’t speak fluent couture — he can spot a Dior or a Chanel at fifty paces, and he has a particular love of the more eccentric labels, like Comme des Garçons and Martin Margiela. (In 2000, when hip-hop fans started wearing their sweatshirts “abstractly, with the neck hole on the shoulder, or with the sleeves dangling down the back,” Collins writes, Cunningham compared the look to the Japanese avant-garde deconstructionist designers.) But despite his depth of insider knowledge, or perhaps because of it, it’s fashion qua fashion that interests him, not the label per se. That might be the biggest difference between Cunningham and Ton.

Cunningham is looking forward to seeing, over the coming months, how people are going to reflect the changing economy in their daily dress. “Fashion, the people wearing it, will do it before they even know what they’re doing. You don’t know yet, it’s just starting to gel, but there will be a style. You watch, you’ll see something. There’s the old saw about hemlines. Who knows? It’s only in the future you can know. You just have to stay out on the street and get it. It’s all here.”

Man On The Street [New Yorker — sub req’d]
Bill Cunningham [NY Times]

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin