There’s something about fashion that has always fascinated me, and yet, I never could put my finger on it. There’s the glamour, celebrity, couture, craftmanship, and fantasy – all things that drew me to fashion.
Bill Cunningham knows what makes him excited about fashion: the clothes.
There’s a scene in the film where Bill is outside of a fashion show in Paris, waiting to get in. He’s patiently holding out his press pass to the “guardians” of the show (surely, a producer of some sort), and he is not getting the time of day from her. Suddenly, a figure emerges out of the frame, at once ushering in Bill and reprimanding this producer saying, “Please, he’s the most important person in the world.”
The most important person in the world doesn’t believe he’s all that important. He lives an incredibly modest life and has no flair for the extravagant. “I like very simple, down-to-earth, very basic things,” he explains. In New York, his only mode of transportation is his Schwinn, he repairs his ponchos with duct tape, and wears a blue street cleaner’s smock whenever he’s shooting. He admonishes wasteful behaviour and refuses to be owned by anyone. “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom – that’s the most expensive.”
It’s this jarring juxtaposition between such a humble and modest man and the subject(s) that he photographs. One may wonder why he is so in love with fashion when his ethics seem to go against everything fashion stands for.
There’s a beautiful moment in the film when Bill is accepting the title of an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France (which he seems quite skeptical of). In the last moment of his speech, his voice breaks as he explains, “It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it.”
Bill clearly finds beauty in individuality, evidenced by some of his favourite subjects to photograph: Anna Piaggi, Patrick McDonald, Iris Apfel… But what I find so incredibly endearing and lovely, and of course – beautiful about Bill is himself.
He talks about how hard it is to be “honest and straight in New York,” but that he’s always trying to be so. He won’t even accept a glass of water at high-profile events, because he wants to maintain his integrity and the integrity of the Times. For him, objectivity is too important to be schmoozing with the socialites who all want their photographs taken by him (he scoffs at the photographers flocking to capture Catherine Deneuve – she wasn’t even wearing anything interesting!) He loves the $4 coffee and breakfast sandwich combo (“The cheaper the better!” he exclaims) and refuses to publish anything that would put anybody in a negative light.
He’s enigmatic without trying – he’s just not like the rest of us, so he just seems hard to understand. But the strange thing is that he’s so simple, and that’s why we don’t get him.
After revealing that he attends church every Sunday, the filmmakers ask him, “Is religion an important component of your life?” Bill looks down, clearly holding back tears. When he finally does look up, he says, “I think it’s a good guidance in your life. Yeah, it’s something I need and… Whatever it is, everyone… you do whatever you do the best you can to work things out. I find it very important, for whatever reason, I don’t know!” My heart is breaking at this moment, because as such as simple man, he seems to have such a heavy heart. I want to know what kinds of regrets he has. Suddenly he breaks into a laugh and says, “As a kid, I went to church and all I did was look at women’s hats!” For a moment, there’s a sense of relief, but he drops his voice again. “Later, when you mature – for different reasons.”
Whatever these reasons may be, I’m in love with this man who cups his hands around his ears to hear better and fearlessly navigates New York’s streets without a helmet. He’s the antithesis of the often contrived fashion world but he never judges it. He’s incredibly giving yet doesn’t seek much acknowledgment.
The President of the French Federation of Couture, talking about Bill getting the honour of being an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, puts it best, “Very deeply, I think, he doesn’t believe he deserves it. That’s why he deserves it, even more.”