The Man in the Blue Jacket

I never met Bill Cunningham. He never took my photo and published in in the New York Times. But like millions of people around the world, the news of his death at 87 this past Saturday brought me to tears.

He seemed – from the 2010 documentary about him and from the voice-overs he did for his weekly “on the street” column – to be a truly genuine person. Eccentric as all get out, but honest, humble, hard-working and funny. Cunningham had an eye, you see, that not so much noticed trends, but that started them. He photographed everyone from the rich to the poor, the only criteria being that they were wearing something unique and attention-catching. He had no interest in celebrity (“I’m not interested in celebrities and their free dresses. I’m interested in fashion!”), and would not take so much as a glass of water when photographing events – meaning he was free of any obligation to include anyone other than those whose style he felt truly inspired by.

Cunningham started taking street photography in the late 1960s and always worked in film, keeping the negatives of every photo he’s ever taken, filling row upon row of filing cabinets, documenting the changing styles of the street for half a century. He was apparently approached once to do a book based on his archive but later backed out. I dearly hope that whoever takes control of his estate recognizes the value of his work and finally turns those photos into a book.

Scratch that – I want a series of books. Hundreds of pounds of books – to rival that massive molecular gastronomy collection from a few years ago – that literally documents western street fashion for the past half century. Donate the proceeds to FIT or the Met, or use it to create scholarships in fashion and photography, just please, can we have something tangible to remember him by?

Some other people whose writing I admire have documented their meeting with Cunningham. Check these out if you want more on the mahvellous man and his work.

Cintra Wilson for GQ Magazine

Forest City Fashionista

Idiosyncratic Fashionistas

My own Ode to Bill from 2014.

And if you haven’t seen Bill Cunningham New York, watch it now. If you have seen it, watch it again, it’s worth the 2 hours of your life.

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Book Review – Fear and Clothing

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Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style
Cintra Wilson

Style is the collision point between our fantasies of who we are, the larger realities we live with and the way we are perceived by others.

As much as I appreciate the sincerity and empowerment behind style campaigns like #fuckflattering or “I wear what I want”, I almost always find the idea disingenuous. We don’t always wear what we want, because of various extenuating forces, and if we do, we’re seldom aware of the message we’re sending out to others via our choice of garments.

That’s not a bad thing – more power to the person who can go through life giving no shits about how they present themselves. But for most people, their first impression of others is intrinsically linked with appearance, especially clothing. Which is to say – every outfit is a complex story about the wearer, a story with a different plot based on who’s interpreting the information provided.

This is the basic premise of Cintra Wilson’s Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style in which the fashion and culture writer, known for her witty, occasionally caustic snark, travels across the US, documenting regional style. From the colourful clothes in Miami to the all-black enclaves of artists and other alternative types in coastal towns like New York and San Francisco, to the power dressing of DC or the celebratory, over the top hats at the Kentucky derby, Wilson examines the cultural factors that create definitive local style.

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Book Reviews – Women In Clothes & It’s So You

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Women In Clothes
by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton
2014, Blue Rider Press, 528 pages

It’s So You: 35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style
edited by Michelle Tea
2007, Seal Press, 300 pages

No matter what we wear, we all think about fashion to some extent, even if it’s just to give a shirt off the floor the sniff test to see if it can go another day. To be honest, I find the whole “no judgment” trend seen on various blogs a bit disingenuous. We all judge each other’s appearance. We’re hardwired to do so, if only to weed out safe people from unsafe people. And most of us judge ourselves more harshly than we do strangers.

Thinking about what we wear, as well as our sources of inspiration for our fashion choices, and how we judge ourselves and others, is the topic of a couple of books I’ve come across lately.

Women In Clothes, edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton is a massive tome of snippets from a massive survey about clothing completed by hundreds of women. Questions range from familial influences to admiring women on the street, the difference in taste versus style, the process of getting dressed in the morning, political messages within clothing choices, etc. It’s extensive to the point of exhaustive, and must certainly have been overwhelming to many of the women who completed it.

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