Before Instagram and Pinterest existed, Bill Cunningham’s lens championed the unique trends he spotted on the streets and delivered his view of everyday fashionistas. His style of reporting what was happening on the most stylish streets in the world directly influenced fashion tastemakers and spawned an entirely new way of reporting on fashion trends - elevating the street to a runway unto itself.
A current exhibit at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library has us contemplating his legacy and the enduring mark he left on New York.
In the past couple of decades street style photographers have become ubiquitous in every fashion capitol, and with the popularity of Instagram most every style-minded blogger reckons themselves to be in the club. Bill, however, was the true original. Observe, snap, and go… he always had the instincts to quickly capture candid shots of the city's best-dressed with his 35-millimeter Olympus. Bill saw the charm of street fashion as the natural beauty and self-expression of what people were saying to one another through their clothes. His eye was truly democratic; he never cared about who he photographed—to him, fashion was all about the clothes and how outfits were put together. One moment he could be snapping an heiress, the next a homeless women, a movie star, or a group of teenagers.
"Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever" – Bill Cunningham
Bill in his signature blue French worker’s jacket with camera slung around his neck and his trusty bicycle always stopped when inexplicably stylish people appeared on the streets. During his career, he purportedly had more than 27 bikes stolen while he parked to capture a street shot!
His instincts for true style transcended the merely fashionable. Trendsetters knew they had hit the mark if they had been shot by Bill, and most can vividly recall their encounters with him. He spotted trends before any fashion editor did and loved to feature fun prints and color stories with humorous title like "Cat Spotting", "Red Rovers", "Blue Chip", "The Color of Money (In the Bank)", and many more.
His Sunday weekly columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” in The New York Times featured collages of all his sidewalk snapshots artfully arranged. For many New Yorkers it was the section they flipped to first to see if they knew anyone featured there - hopefully it would be themselves! Also, they felt confident they were seeing an unbiased and expert take on the trends of the day. Bill was notoriously principled about who and what he would shoot and was known to not take any sort of endorsements; he chose instead to follow his passion rather than be conflicted by paid partnerships or deals with celebrities in free dresses.
Bill once said: “The main thing I love about street photography is that you find the answers you don’t see at the fashion shows. You find information for readers so they can visualize themselves. This was something I realized early on: If you just cover the designers in the shows, that’s only one facet. You also need the street and the evening hours. If you cover the three things, you have the full picture of what people are wearing.”
Bill died in June 2016 at the age of 87 and fashion insiders worldwide mourned the loss of a beloved industry figure and true eccentric personality. It was hard to imagine a fashionable event without him - it was the end of an era. Prior to his passing, a wonderful documentary film from 2010 about Bill indicated just how much the fashion world thought of him and what a living legend he had become. He will always be regarded as the godfather of street-style photography.
If you are as enamored of Bill and his work as I am, make sure to get to the New York Historical Society Museum & Library for their special exhibition “Celebrating Bill Cunningham” to honor this beloved fashion photographer; it is open until on September 9th, 2018.
I have seen it and was really inspired by all of the work on display, and was also very glad to have had a chance to look at his personal journals and ephemera from his life and career. Items include his first professional camera, his bicycle, and of course many of the photos he captured.
Be sure to check it out if you’re in New York - I promise you will be happy you went!
In the past several decades street style has evolved into a major influencer of fashion trend. It reveals the individuality of everyday people thorough their clothes and reflects the spirit of the times. With our print collections "Wild At Heart" and "French Connection", our designers are inspired by genuine style whether it's American rockabilly or iconic Parisian je ne sais quois. Below is a selection from these current groups:
Skater Girl | Lolly | Wrapped Dots | Floral Hearts | Painted Blossom | Lipsticks
Be sure to check our extensive collection of fashion prints here
Sources: Forbes | Rouleur | IMDB | Vogue | New Yorker
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