Bill Cunningham Looked Past the Runway to Capture Modern Identity

Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

This is the age of street style, an era when we talk about “the show outside the show”: the people who dress to be photographed by the growing hordes of snappers on the sidewalk waiting to capture the ever-more exaggerated fashions necessary to stand out from the peacocking crowd and bestow upon them their 15 minutes, or seconds, of fame. Go to any fashion show and you can see it: a woman or man in a colorful, kooky get-up, swarmed by photographers jostling for the best shot and calling, “Look over here!” and, “Who are you wearing?” — lemmings in the land of the look-at-me.

But Bill Cunningham, who began it all, was never among them.

Since his death on Saturday, many of the memorials and the hagiographies that have poured out over the internet have dubbed Bill (I can’t call him Mr. Cunningham, as I’ve known him, and been squeezed up next to him on fashion show benches, for too long) the father of street style, and rightly so. Still, a more accurate way to think of him might be as someone who applied the tenets of visual journalism to fashion.

He began his career as a reporter, after all, and his photographs were simply another expression of the same discipline: They weren’t filtered, airbrushed or staged.

He was among the first to recognize the value of observing what people wore in their everyday life, and to understand that it was a reflection of identity and culture, a means of communication used by all, and thus a crucial historical record. Before there was Scott Schuman, a.k.a. “The Sartorialist,” or Tommy Ton, or Phil Oh, there was Bill, riding his bicycle, reporting on what he saw: the idiosyncratic and the ubiquitous, but above all, the honest.

His subject was not what was manufactured to catch his eye, but what people wore to feel part of the group, or to stand out from the group, or to otherwise telegraph their place in the world — be it at a high-society charity ball or at a popular shopping street corner, no matter. Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, has often been quoted as saying, “We all dressed for Bill.” It’s a lovely and genuine sentiment — both fashion and society are peppered by women whose dream was to be photographed by Bill, and having him take your picture became a much-coveted seal of approval — but the truth is, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to dress for him. He wanted to understand and record how they dressed for themselves.

He himself dressed the part. He created his own uniform years ago, calculated to take himself out of the (bigger) picture: a blue French worker’s jacket, khakis and sneakers. It spoke, proclaiming very loudly, “This is not about me.” But it was about his eye.

He taught me (his pictures taught me) that while what was on the catwalks was interesting, it was what happened to the clothes afterward — how they were used, or not used — that really mattered. It wasn’t that he rejected fashion; he loved it, with a never-ending enthusiasm for discovery. But he understood that its power was personal. Clothes are the front line of communication; they are the first thing we say about ourselves to each other, and the first judgment we make in turn. That was his story. And it is why his videos and columns were so obsessively interesting.

Harold Koda, the former head of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once told me that the debate over whether fashion belonged in the museum had been resolved when the powers that be started seeing fashion as a decorative art that represented popular attitudes and mores — toward beauty, craft and society — at a specific moment in time. This belief also drove Bill, whose thousands of pictures now comprise an invaluable portrait of popular identity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They recorded the casualization of life, the rise of the cause ribbon, the advent of the “It” bag and the problem of global warming (What the hell do you wear when it’s summer in January and snowing in April?).

Street style has become an increasingly ersatz game, less about unique and the revelatory than marketing, with brands shipping clothes to popular stars to wear in theoretically un-styled shots — clothes they have not chosen, mind you, but been given (or even paid to wear). In the same way that the red carpet has become an advertising vehicle, so, too, have many sidewalks. Bill represented the truth behind all of that.

His legacy is our reality, and we should not forget.

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