thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Posts Tagged ‘sunday styles’

Do What You Love: Bill Cunningham New York

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2012 at 6:48 am

My graduate school advisor had a lot of very good advice, true to her title. Most of it boiled down to a quote from philosopher and civil rights activist Howard Thurman that she’d hung on her office door:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

That quote–and my advisor–kept running through my mind as I watched Bill Cunningham New York, a 2010 documentary on the 80-year-old New York Times on-the-street fashion photographer.

Style, and the people who have it, make Cunningham come alive. During a Paris awards ceremony at which he is slated to receive a prize, Cunningham wanders around snapping pictures. “I just think it’s so funny that you’re working at your own party,” a guest remarks. “My darling,” Cunningham says, “it’s not work, it’s pleasure.”

What fascinates the gentle, stubborn journalist is fashion alchemy: how the right combination of shoes and hats and scarves and coats can produce a look that’s at once unique and expressive of a larger cultural moment. As his fondness for Anna Piaggi of Italian Vogue makes clear, Cunningham is particularly delighted by people who aren’t afraid to stand out in a crowd. It’s telling that he calls Piaggi a “poet of clothes” and that he frequently describes the fashions he sees on the streets in terms of classical paintings and symphonies. In clothing, Cunningham sees beauty, art, democracy, history, travel, community, and self-expression. His gift is to show everyone else how to see those things too.

Watching the film, I kept taking mental notes on how Cunningham has located, and preserved, real joy in his work. Two of the key elements, I think, are his egalitarianism and humility. Not only does he protect those qualities in himself, he infuses them into his corners of realms famed for their elitism–New York society, the Times, and fashion.

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