Bill Cunningham - a name that is not widely recognized outside of the New York Fashion world, is well known and iconic among the fashion elite and bohemian artists in New York and Europe during the last century and the beginning of the 21st century.
He was the OG street photographer, a New York Times fashion columnist, a milliner, and as Bill liked to describe himself, a fashion historian. He conveyed political and economic world events, as well as his enormous love for fashion as it was reflected in the street style of New York City and the world, though his photography. His ability to recognize a person's exquisite taste in fashion, sense of style and unique personality have made him the most important figure in fashion and fashion journalism. He also set a rare example of being able to enjoy a simple lifestyle and prioritizing work first, with a well deserved reputation for his character and generosity.
Bill stated that although fashion itself might rapidly change, the important role fashion plays for society will always remain the same; and it would always be around for as long as humans exist. The photographer himself proved his famous observation. Despite the fact that he was born and raised in a strict Catholic family, where being a designer was considered a taboo and an embarrassing occupation to the extent that as a child Bill was brutally beaten up by his mother for being attracted to clothes, he chose fashion over family. In 1948 at the age of 19 he left his home town for New York City, the fashion capitol of America, to pursue his dream of becoming a women's hat designer.
Young Bill Cunningham is making a hat in his NY shop
Anthony Mack, 1954
Bill Cunningham could not explain where his passion has come from, but he admitted that he first noticed his attraction to fashion when he was still a little boy. He couldn't concentrate on a Sunday church service because the beautiful hats worn by women around distracted him. Even though Bill was recognized by many as one of the fashion innovators, he would never take credit for this himself. As a result of his brilliant design ideas for outstanding shapes and details, Cunningham's hat creations had become extremely popular among such divas as Marilyn Monroe, Kathrine Hepburn, and even future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier.
A hat shaped like a fish designed and photographed
by Bill Cunningham in his shop at the corner of Fifth
Avenue and 57th Streets in New York in 1950s.
Bill's passion and dedication for fashion had no comparison. "I died a thousand deaths,"-was Bill's iconic expression to describe the feeling he got from watching a fashion show. He has attended more Fashion Weeks than any other person in the world. Not only that, he remembered them all and was able to recall small details about each one of them, even many years later. That fact alone made Bill Cunningham a very important figure in fashion because during his lifetime photography at fashion shows was not allowed, so Bill indeed played the role of both fashion reporter and historian by being able to retell the events by snipping candid photos and writing notes in his diaries.
Bill was the first person to recognize the fashion influencers factor, a phenomenon that has been around for a long while before #instagram and other social media platforms. He talked about women who did not work, but were strongly addicted to fashion and had a reputation of best dressed in a society, that leading high end designers including Balenciaga, Fendi, Christian Dior, Chanel, and Yves Saint Laurent. were willing to gift such women outrageously expensive garments for free as a way to promote their brands.
Like a reading a history book we discover about fashion events, genius artists, and fashion figures through Bill's photography. Diana Vreeland was one of them, a noted communist and editor-in-chief of fashion, special consultant at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she organized twelve exhibitions, and Bill Cunningham photographed all of them except for one. He recognized Diana Vreeland as a fashion icon and a great unique style and couldn't help it but follow her work. She truly exemplified style and celebrated the '60s enormously because she felt that uniqueness was being celebrated. "If you had a bump on your nose, it made no difference so long as you had a marvelous body and good carriage." Vreeland was famous for sending notes to her staff urging them to be creative. She had a vision and believed that fashion magazines were needed to give women a point of view; and her vision was so unique that one day she said, "Wouldn't be wonderful to have stockings that were pig white! The color of baby pigs, not quite white and not quite pink!"
Diana Vreeland, consultant to the Costume Institute of the
MET 1971-1984, Bill Cunningham
In a similar manner, American audiences learned about the discreet fashion of Jean Paul Gaultier through the inquiring lens of Bill Cunningham. Bill truly had a rare sense and ability to recognize a new real talent, not just a talent but a designer-inventor who could take a fashion course into a whole different direction. His belief was that such a true artist, a true designer, every once in a while appeared in fashion to create a revolution, to stir things up with their new ideas; and the rest of the world followed along for a while until a new trail blazer emerged. Bill even had an intuition for sensing when an event like that was due, and he predicted the appearance of a new talent to revolutionize the fashion world not long before his death. Did he mean Alexander McQueen? One could certainly think so...
La Mariniere Womenswear,
courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier
The original iconic concept from
1983 inspire by his childhood
wardrobe adopting a sailor
Jean Paul Gaultier 1994 Runway look inspired by
17th century padding techniques, courtesy of CR
Bill "celebrated fashion", as Time Magazine put it. He didn't notice names or faces, he photographed clothes. His historic breakthrough candid shot of Greta Garbo on the street in NYC in 1978 in her nutria coat was about the coat, not the enigmatic movie star of the 1920s. "I thought: 'Look at the cut of that shoulder. It's so beautiful,'" he later wrote.
For that same reason Bill Cunningham photographed Iris Apfel before she became "Iris Apfel". He admired her style - black glossy glasses and chunky fashion jewelry.
Bill Cunningham and Iris Apfel, photo by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images
He admired freedom of fashion and style and easily recognized it when he saw it. He also exposed the work and talent of another talented designer. He was the first to write about Azzedine Alaia, a Tunisian-born couturier and shoe designer, who became successful beginning in the 1980s, who "refused the marketing-driven logic of luxury conglomerates, continuing to focus on clothes." Bill wasn't afraid to praise designers or even to call them out. During his tenure at the Chicago Tribune and Details magazine Bill accused both Giorgio Armani and Isaac Mizrahi of copying other designers.
Azzedine Alaia grey dress from 1986
Bill stayed away from the "well-trod party" of other photographers. He detached himself from the elites, and it helped him "connect to the part of fashion where the real energy contained among young people, eccentric outliers, and the denizens of the street." As Ronnie Newhouse, his fellow editor at Details Magazine recalled, Bill would always hang out at the last row during a show and say, "All the people who tell the truth are in the last rows." In 2008 he told Womens Wear Daily that he was not "interested in celebrities with their free dresses." Street style as a reflection of a real fashion expression was his passion. Bill thought that every pedestrian on the streets of New York deserved to be photographed. By doing so, he invented his own genre, street fashion photography, and became the street photography legend himself. It made him feel alive! One of the people Bill liked to photograph was Louise Doctor, and administrative assistant at a New York holding company who had a coat with four sleeves and a handbag made from a soccer ball. Another was Andre J., a bearded man with a taste for off-the shoulder, 70's-inspired dresses. Most people in Bill's column were not famous. They were working people, and Bill was interested in their personal style. In one of his essays for The Times in 2002 Bill Cunningham wrote:
"Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever: I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they're horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It's mirroring exactly our times."
Photo by Bill Cunningham, Los Angeles, CA
Photo by Bill Cunningham, New York
Bill Cunningham dedicated fifty years to street photography. He portrayed the democracy of fashion before it was accepted. In his work he didn't judge one person over the other, he was just documenting the reality he saw. He was letting the streets speak to him, and they did. Cunningham rode a beat-up bike everywhere and wore the same uniform every day, which became his signature style - pants and the same blue work jacket worn by the street cleaning crews in Paris because he valued the choice of freedom over money. After his death it felt as if "New York stayed still." Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief said many times, "we all get dressed for Bill."
We miss you dearly Bill!
Bill Cunningham and Anna Wintour, Photo: Patrick McMullan
For more information:
The Times of Bill Cunningham - a documentary film by a director, Mark Bozek, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker.
Bill Cunningham New York - a documentary film by a director, Richard Press and producer, Philip Gefter.
Bill Cunningham: He Didn't Sell Fashion; De Celebrated it... - Time magazine.
Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times... - The New York Times.
Bill Cunningham: On the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography - New York Times book, September 3, 2019.
Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs by Bill Cunningham and Hilton Als, September 4, 2018.
Polka Dot Parade: A Book About Bill Cunningham - picture book by Deborah Blumenthal.
Bill Cunningham (American Photographer) - Wikipedia.