A week has gone by and we (and I mean all of us) still can’t stop talking about Susan Boyle and weighing in (sorry about the pun) on our fascination and obsession with beauty, and the notion of judging a book by its cover. This was even the cover story of the Sunday Style section of The New York Times yesterday, “Yes, Looks Do Matter” by Pam Belluck. As Ms. Belluck observed, “for more than a week now, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been using the story of Susan Boyle as an example of just how shallow we’ve become” and she went on to discuss why our “brains persist in using stereotypes” and we continue to make snap judgments based upon looks (something which has been described as “only natural” and human nature, even by Ms. Boyle herself).
Coincidentally, as I turned the pages to continue the article, I happened upon ‘On the Street’, Bill Cunningham’s weekly column. (click here to go to his video column). For over 30 years, the legendary photographer has defined (or rather, redefined) fashion, style, and beauty through his lens (giving new meaning to ‘snap’ judgment), and as I glanced at the images of the diverse group who made the pages this Sunday, I couldn’t help but think how influential Bill has been, and how large a role his column has played in shaping our collective perceptions or misconceptions on those subjects. While admittedly, this group, like all the others, might seem to have little else in common, what binds them together each Sunday is that they possess an element that is the thread in Bill’s column.
His 'Evening Hours' column is all about chronicling names and faces of those revelers who attended high profile events and soirees around town, the ‘On the Street’ is a true collage (in every imaginable way) representing a cross section of life. Bill has the youthful energy and curiosity belying someone decades younger, and is the furthest thing from a snob: he does not search out or photograph the genetically blessed or socially connected. In fact, it’s quite the opposite it seems. BC puts his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion, innate taste, and great natural instincts to use in the most democratic way, finding the extraordinary within the seemingly ‘ordinary’ and giving equal time to labeled and non labeled items, depending on the thrust of the article.
While he has in the past, devoted his pictorials to say, a certain Chanel jacket, Hermes bag, or Burberry trench, more often than not, he is seeking a democratic cross section of items, at all prices, to more effectively and fairly make his point. Or in many cases, he is zeroing in on the finely tuned details that would elude most of us, but which capture his imagination (the arrestingly interesting back of a coat, the dressmaker/ couture like pleats of a dress, the way a belt is tied, etc.) So too with his subjects: he photographs everyone from babies to octogenarians (and not only the Iris Apfels and Brooke Astors of the world) and everyone in between, as well as dogs, cats, flowers, birds, etc. Anything that he finds beautiful and captivating.
And so, photogenic, young, beautiful, fashionable, tall, thin, social/fashion fixtures and celebrated clothes horses (snapped while attending fashion shows, charity balls, high profile openings), are routinely juxtaposed next to unsuspecting ‘civilians’ (of varying sizes, ages, weights, heights, ethnicities, social classes, sexual preferences), who Bill discovered ‘doing their thing’ at street fairs, city parades, or as they ran errands about town. Very often, there are no ‘glamour pusses’ at all (just ‘average Joes’), and celebrity subjects are not automatically given more space time because of ‘who’ they are. For example, in this week’s ‘In the Air’, the picture of fashion star, French Vogue editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld, is not as large as the one of Marjorie Stern, the designer coat collector who is not a fashion insider, but a woman who works on 5th Avenue, and who has caught Bill’s eye.
I remember several years ago when python and snakeskin were the height of fashion and ubiquitous on all the runways. All the designers, from Miuccia Prada to YSL were showing snakeskin coats, jackets, pants, etc. and in his column spotlighting the trend, Bill not only used photos he had taken of editors at the Spring shows in New York and Paris, many wearing designer duds, but showed a young man, (I believe he was a reveler in that year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade), whose naked torso was wrapped with a real snake. It's not just about celebrating or rewarding the fortunate few who can spend well into the 4 figures for an item, but the ones who are individual, creative, and ingenious. I suppose one call Bill the original 'High/Low' guy: a true precursor of what would come. And how relevant, particuarly in these hard economic times!
And talk about not being a snob and being completely democratic, (Bill is not ‘star struck’ and celebrities are not of specific interest to him). In fact, when I interviewed him for our 'Masters of Fashion Video Series', he said that what interests him are women who dress themselves and who buy their own clothes, not socialites and actresses who are given things to wear by their publicists. To wit, during Fashion Week several years ago, as I made my way to my seat at the Tent in Bryant Park, the photographers were making a mad dash to snap an attendee in the front row. Bill asked me who it was, and because I couldn’t see the person, I didn’t know. Well, he went over but quickly came back. In that time, I realized who the celebrity in question was and told him (she will remain secret). Unimpressed, he shrugged and smiled, saying, “It doesn’t matter…she didn’t have any style anyway.”