Monday, September 26, 2011

You... yes, you... are a bird of paradise.

Last night’s food for thought: a documentary called Bill Cunningham New York... it really turned my brain around! Bill Cunningham is an 83-year-old photographer who has two regular spreads in the New York Times – one featuring society parties, and the other, people in the street and what they are wearing.

Even though I am not particularly well dressed most of the time, I am fascinated by fashion. I love to have fun with what I wear, and ever since I was a kid I’ve watched how people dressed. Even when we were kids, if my sister and I were stuck somewhere waiting on our mother who, to put it kindly, likes to take her time... well, we’d pass the time watching the people’s shoes... We’d say the shoes under our breath as the people walked by... “wallabee... topsider... tennis shoe..." and, yes, we judged them. Because in our opinion it was really shoes that could make or break an outfit. Because when you’re a 12-year-old girl from a small tobacco town in North Carolina, you really know fashion, right? (In our defense, we did wear out our mom’s monthly copies of Vogue...)

Anyway, this guy Bill Cunningham, spends his time riding a bicycle around  – even at 83 – photographing the fashion parade that is New York City by day, then is off to balls and galas at night, taking snaps of debutantes and socialites...

You would think that as fashion professional, he would be picky... even judgemental about people’s fashion choices, but, as one of the people commenting in the movie says, Bill is  a true egalitarian. He loves the everyday people he sees on the streets, the socialites like Brooke Astor, and the drag queens that rule the night equally. And it is true that, while he covers the runway shows he has a discriminating eye that can nail it when a designer has shown true edge, and when a real trend is being created. In short, he is hard on the designers – but only in the sense that he wants them to be at their creative best... not copycats. Meanwhile, he shows tremendous grace to the people who are out there on the street wearing the clothes.

It reminds me of how Jesus expected a great deal from the religious leaders of his day, but showed great grace to the ordinary folks. (Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.) 

Bill Cunningham says he simply loves photographing beautiful women dressed beautifully, and is always on the lookout for some glorious bird of paradise... But he also snaps everyday people wearing everyday clothes in their own way. You can tell he loves every kind of person. 

A former colleague tells the story of his break with the fashion industry publication W. He had compiled a photo essay of designer fashions worn by models on the runway to be shown side-by-side with women he’s seen on the streets wearing the same clothes. His intent was to show how women made these striking pieces worked for themselves in the real world... The editors of the magazine, however had their own plan. They made it into sort of a “DOs and DON’Ts” column, making fun of the ordinary women. Well, Bill was livid... and that was the end of his relationship with THAT magazine!

Yes, Bill Cunningham is loaded with integrity, humility, kindness, enthusiasm, and ... eccentricities. Until recently he lived alone in his studio in Carnegie hall, sleeping on a cot amidst a forest of file cabinets and attending church every Sunday... And I learned a lot from the peek into his life that the movie gave me.

So... what did I learn? That EVERYONE is beautiful... Of course it’s more fun to be creative, and to see people who have been creative with their clothes... but every fashion choice communicates something, and everyone is worth listening to. Even if all they are trying to say is: “I value comfort” or “I like to blend in” or “I read fashion magazines” or “This is what they make me wear to work” or “I have great legs” or, a favorite: “I just don’t care.”

So, you, sitting there reading this... whatever you have on... you’re beautiful, and I hear what you’re saying!


  1. Very, very, entertaining!

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