When studying the History of Dress, there seems to be a tendency to focus on the clothes featured by designers in fashion shows and magazines and worn by the most famous and wealthiest members of society. There is, of course, good reason for this; however, to do so exclusively is to ignore the largest platform for showcasing new trends- the street.
Bill Cunningham, who, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, I only recently learned about, has devoted much of his life to documenting the fashions worn by the everyday person. Bill is a devoted fashionista: he attends the major fashion shows, photographing his favourite styles as modeled on the catwalk. He then takes to the streets of New York, capturing these styles in the everyday world. His images, published in the fashion section of the New York Times, are candid shots, taken when people are unaware, and thus showing clothes and the body at their most natural and least glamorous. His latest series, entitled ‘Fashion’s Deep Freeze,’ captures people battling the snowy conditions on a typical New York January day. Bill explains, in article ‘Bill on Bill,’published in the Times in 2002, that, when he began photographing the people of New York in the 1970s, magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were doing a similar thing, however they only focused on famous or well-known people at society events. Bill is different. He claims not to care at all who the person inside the clothing is, he is only interested in the best dressed people on the street, famous or not. He says ‘I never bothered with celebrities unless they were wearing something interesting.’
Interestingly, despite the fact that he had no fashion or photography training, Bill is extremely highly regarded by even the most prominent in the industry. Anna Wintour has notoriously said that ‘we all get dressed for Bill. However, even being Anna Wintour does not guarantee her a shot: she describes how the worst feeling is having him cast a glance over her outfit and not taking a photograph.
This mini personal discovery came at quite a pertinent time in relation to what we are studying on the MA, for this week we focused on representations of everyday clothing, captured by early photography and film in the 1920s and ‘30s. The sources we looked at were often taken by amateur photographers, simply capturing their friends and family, with no real regard for the clothing. Only now, these images are useful as illustrations of everyday clothing worn by real people. The articles of clothing that exist in archives and museums tend to be less everyday wear and more garments that were bought or made for a specific event, such as wedding dresses and ball gowns, which were generally much more expensive and less often worn. Subsequently, dress historians must rely on what film and photography remains to gauge the everyday dress of a period.
In this respect, Bill’s images are an invaluable resource, both for the fashion conscious now, and those in the future wishing to look back on fashions of the early 21st century. He refuses to accept any payment for his images, claiming that this allows him the freedom to photograph whatever he wants without being restricted by the demands of the newspaper. He travels through New York by bicycle with his camera, ready to take a snap at a moment’s notice. The vast majority of his images remain unpublished, and are stored in his tiny apartment in rows of filing cabinets. He takes these images for himself, to satisfy his love of clothing and his appreciation of aesthetics.
Bill Cunningham, ‘Bill on Bill,’ New York Times, October 27, 2002
Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, Zeitgeist Films, 2010 https://zeitgeistfilms.com/billcunninghamnewyork/