Bill Cunningham continues to scope out fashion on the streets of New York.
This spunky little gem of a documentary makes us feel buoyant, because that’s what Bill Cunningham is about. The enthusiastic 82-year-old New York Times photojournalist has the heart of a boy and the energy of a 30-year-old, navigating the city streets on his Schwinn bicycle and wearing a smile. Cunningham’s weekly column, “On the Street,” is a barometer of fashion trends. The weekend feature is a photo display or a slide show, which he narrates informally in his “maaah-velous” down-East accent. Whether it’s sundresses or shirtdresses, stilettos or construction boots, sapphire blues or graphic stripes, Cunningham reports the trend of whatever the pedestrian traffic is wearing.
Bill Cunningham is an encyclopedia of style and its intricate history. As a child, he remembers spending his Sundays in church admiring the women’s hats. And his first business under the label of William J was crafting stylish headwear. He has always had a passion for clothing that is beautiful, but it must also be functional. A runway fashion is useless, he feels, if it isn’t wearable on the street.
And what does his own wardrobe look like, you wonder? Here lies the beauty of paradox. Cunningham’s personal sense of fashion includes a $2 rain poncho that he mends with duct tape. And his standard gear is a bright blue jacket that he discovered in Paris . . . it’s the street-sweepers’ uniform. And it’s perfect for a bike-riding photographer, with several pockets for rolls of film (yes, he still uses film) and rugged fabric that withstands the friction against a shoulder-slung camera. In other words, his wardrobe, and his entire life, revolves around function. And his function is to observe and document what people are wearing.
The most remarkable thing about Cunningham is that he chooses to be unremarkable. The humble bachelor has lived for 50 years in a tiny rent-controlled room in Carnegie Hall, with a hallway bathroom, with no kitchen or furniture, just a narrow makeshift bed squeezed into the corner. The rest of the room is jammed with tall file cabinets brimming with photo negatives that chronicle street fashion back to the 1960s, with his extra set of clothes hanging on the drawer handle.
Bill Cunningham New York is bursting with memorable characters from all levels of New York society. And whether you care about fashion or not, you will love Cunningham’s passion. And more than that, you will love Bill Cunningham. He must have been the role model for Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization, of being the most fulfilled person you can be. Just watching this documentary is a step in that direction. The joy is contagious. A
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