Bill Cunningham, in memoriam: the Eye of Street Fashion
by Sebastiano Bazzichetto
[Last year, on June the 25th, American photographer William John Cunningham passed away. To remember him and his work, we propose again a piece by our Editor-in-chief, then released in the Corriere Canadese]
TORONTO – Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, suddenly realized they were naked, and wore a fig leaf. In other words, fashion was born. To be fashionable (“essere alla moda”) is one of the main features, and stereotypes, of Italians around the world, and rightly so. Names of Italian fashion designers (finely known as “couturiers”) are several, from Valentino to Versace, from Prada to Moschino, Ferragamo and so forth.
However, the names of people who stand behind the camera to report and chronicle fashion trends, runway shows and collections often remain anonymous.
One of those people, a photographer who dedicated 40 years of his life to document fashion and to witness clothes worn by ordinary people, passed away less than two weeks ago in New York.
William J. Cunningham, better known as Bill, was not only a photographer, but rather a peculiar anthropologist of society, a refined member of those people who understand life through the looking glass of the arts, in his case, photography. Born into an Irish Catholic family, after working as a milliner for a short time, Bill started writing about fashion for ‘Women’s Wear Daily’ and the ‘Chicago Tribune’, before dedicating himself entirely to street photography (also witnessing events of New York high society).
He did not wear fancy clothes or expensive shoes because he was there (guarding the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th st. ) to capture, photograph and immortalize them.
His inner eye – as Wordsworth would have named it – was not only interested in haute couture, but rather in the outfits put together and worn by everyday people. In a world that constantly aims to reimagine itself, Bill was a beacon for the entire fashion industry and culture.
What is most touching and inspiring about him is the spark that one could see in his smiling eyes, in the simple pose of a man riding his bike in the coldest winters and hottest summers, living on three-dollar food in the name of an ideal.
Even though the documentary by Richard Press (“Bill Cunningham New York”, 2011) put him on display, he ultimately was a restless reporter that always worked meticulously, humbly and silently. Anna Wintour has famously said many times that «We all dress up for Bill», but I believe that Bill did not care whether they dressed up for him or not; he was interested in clothes, shapes and colours: people have to dress up, for fashion is “the armour to survive the reality of everyday life”.
The light of his eyes extinguished on June 25, at age 87, but the eye of his camera lives on in the immense archive that he created in over 40 years of brilliant career. The recent exhibition that opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, “Manus X Machina”, addresses the combination of fashion and technology in modern times. Fashion “ex machina” (that is, produced by a machinery, but not solely) is the conclusion that one can draw from the display of more than a hundred pieces. For the last 40 years, it can rightly be stated that fashion seen on the street was “fashion ex Bill”.
Readers of the ‘New York Times’ and the whole world have had the chance to see life and fashion evolving week by week thanks to and through his educated eye. Cunningham’s work represents one of the utmost testaments about modern society bridging the 20th and 21st centuries.
At the ceremony honouring him with the Légion d’Honneur in France, he ended his brief speech by saying that «he who seeks beauty will find it».
Throughout a life spent capturing hats, fluorescent sneakers, studded gloves or zebra-striped high heels, Bill has certainly taught us many ways to chase after beauty, many fashions beauty can be seen and appreciated.
I am sure he has now found the beauty he was looking for.