An Afternoon with Bill Cunningham

“ Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”  This is the quote that sent me off in search of what I perceived to be a kindred spirit in Bill Cunningham.  Yesterday, I went to see the movie “Bill Cunningham New York” and I was not disappointed.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of him until a friend posted this quote on Facebook a few days ago.  I began to read articles about him and I knew I had to see this documentary of life/work.

It turns out his life is his work.  Throughout the film he comments that he doesn’t have time for the ordinary things of life like cooking or having a romance. I am not even close to his level of obsession with fashion, but I did experience a kind of validation that it’s fine to care so much about how you put yourself together to go out in the world.

He, himself, dresses in very plain inexpensive clothes.  There’s even a bit in the movie about him happily taping up a plastic rain poncho because he doesn’t want to spend $5 bucks on a new one.  However, what he does say is that if everyone dressed like him the world would be boring.  Far from advocating his aesthetic, he actually lives to catch a still shot of someone who has gone beyond the cookie-cutter confines of style and good taste.  He spends all day on the streets of New York with his Nikon hoping to get a good shot of something creative, something well done.

He is also out there looking for trends among the people.  I find myself doing the same.  I love to people watch, especially in airports.  You get a bit of the culture of a town watching it’s people come and go from their various adventures.  What are they wearing in St Paul?  What’s the aesthetic here?  What is the cultural narrative?  I try to extrapolate the key influences – weather, dominate industry, education levels, TV, etc.  I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, so I know something about the crushing weight of conformity.  However, in San Francisco, as in New York City, there is much more room to be different, and even appreciated for that creativity.

For me public places, like the airport and the San Francisco opera plaza (where I saw the movie), are living art galleries.  I am moved and gratified when I see someone taking a fashion risk and it works.  I even appreciate the misses.  God knows, I’ve been there plenty of times and will be many more.  Nonetheless, if you’re looking to create a beautiful original outfit you are, by definition, experimenting.  So it will be the mistakes that set the stage for the ah-ha moments when you put a pair of shoes together with a skirt and the whole outfit is lifted to new level of cohesion and beauty.

When I came out of the theater, I had this giddy motivation to continue to seek out in others as well as to aspire to something in myself, that which is extraordinary.

“It continues to be true, that they that seek beauty will find always find beauty.”  Bill Cunningham at the podium receiving a lifetime achievement award in Paris.


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