Excerpt from Vanessa Friedman, 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.
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