Film: All style in the Big Apple

Bill Cunningham: New York
Directed by Richard Press
84 minutes


This is most probably the most useless review you have ever read – useless because the film is no longer screening in cinemas.  Yet, in spite of its limited screening, it is a remarkably useful film.

The film is a documentary about a quintessential New Yorker named Bill Cunningham.  Bill is the New York Times street style photographer.  While most of us associate street style photography with The Sartorialist and the plethora of street style blogs that Schuman has spawned, Bill is an unknown name.  But Bill is the original arbiter of everyday style.  He began snapping in the 1960s and, as an octogenarian, he still hops on his bike, in his (highly unfashionable) blue workman’s shirt to photograph the outfits featured on 42nd street to Fifth Avenue.

Many might dismiss this documentary because it is set exclusively in the fashion world; it certainly is a 90 minute feast for the fashion eye.  But it goes much further than that, exploring the meaning of fashion, or, as Bill likes to call it, “our armour against life.” Early in his career, Bill wrote an article featuring ordinary women wearing clothes from the catwalk.  Unbeknownst to Bill, his editors changed his copy, angling the piece to mock the ordinary women.  Bill was so upset that from that day he has refused any pay check, in order to retain creative control and celebrate the fashion of ordinary people.

And so Bill has come to exemplifyNew Yorkand its undying belief in egalitarianism and democracy.  While The Sartorialist now almost exclusively shoots models outside fashion shows, Bill remains on the streets.  Indeed, dismissing a swarm of paparazzi Bill proclaims, “I’m interested in the clothes, not the people.”  His irreverence towards all manifestations of power becomes increasingly stark throughout the film.  While he photographs the rich and famous at high society galas, he lives in a tiny flat crammed with filing cabinets and a bed erected on milk crates.  He never touches a morsel of food at the galas, preferring only burgers and coffee from cheap diners.

Yet Bill is even more of an essential New Yorker because there is a hint of a contradiction in his mission to capture the “everyman”.   WhileNew Yorkconsiders itself the land of opportunity no matter your race or religion, it is simultaneously the City of the wealthy and powerful.  And Bill too is powerful, so powerful that even the great Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, admits that everybody “gets dressed for Bill.”  There is even Bill’s turn of phrase, constantly calling people “kid” and “child,” which surely invokes some kind of power-play.

Bill Cunningham: New York is an incredibly useful film because it is not just a about fashion, but about the contradictions of a great city and a great man.

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