Film Review: Bill Cunningham New York

If you’re out on the streets of New York, you might catch a glimpse of him. He rolls down cluttered streets with total disregard for his own safety. His eyes aren’t the road, but instead fixed to his camera, poised to snap the next shot. His life’s passion: fashion. Sounds like a hip, young fashion blogger, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. If you don’t already know who Bill Cunningham is, you’ll be surprised to know that he’s over eighty years old, and only ventures as far in personal style as blue street sweepers’ jackets (because, he says in the film, the camera won’t tear them as easily as fancy jackets). Bill’s was photographing street fashion decades before there were blogs. In a way, Bill ‘s New York Times columns, “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” and his previous work for Women’s Wear Daily, were proto-fashion blogs.

The film, Bill Cunningham New York, released March 16th 2011, paints an intriguing portrait of Bill’s life. I watched this movie hoping to see some inspiring New York street fashion, but this film is less about the fashion, and more about Bill’s passion for it. When asked by the filmmakers what religion means to him, Bill could only say that as a child in church, he was much too busy checking out the women’s hats. It becomes clear that fashion is the driving force of his life. He explains that he isn’t concerned with celebrities and they’re “free dresses,” but rather “private women,” as he calls them, who haven’t just slapped a straight-of-the-runway garment on their bodies, but have instead taken garments and worn them in their own way. He is uninterested in plain clothes, saying the world would be a boring place if everyone dressed like he does. Throughout the film, we see Bill Cunningham skipping lunch and risking his life in New York traffic on his Schwinn bike just to be that much closer to printing the perfect column. It is touching to to see someone who whole-heartedly loves his job.

We see his home, a teeny apartment wedged in a corner of Carnegie Hall, is filled with stacks of fashion books and dozens and dozens of filing cabinets jammed-packed with film strips, chronicling the decades of street and evening fashion he’d captured thus far. It’s then when we see that Bill’s life is lonely. Fashion has left little room for personal relationships. At one point, his former editor from his days spent working for Women’s Wear Daily, is called the love of his life. He is unmarried and has no children, and he’s nearing the end of his life. When asked if he regrets it, he laughs. It’s only when he speaks about his love of fashion at a French event in his honor that he breaks into tears.

After watching this film, I realized that a documentary that would have fulfilled by craving for street fashion would have been boring. This film takes a more heartfelt and personal side. If you enjoyed The September Issue, you’ll like Bill Cunningham New York even more. It will inspire you to love fashion more than a street fashion documentary ever could. This film is a must-see for any fashion photographer or writer.

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