Delightful and Quirky: Bill Cunningham New York

Overall: This documentary is fun, quirky and inspiring. Bill Cunningham New York is a documentary following the fascinating fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. It was released 16 March 2011 – so it’s a little under a year old – and is, in my humble opinion, a must see.

The basics: Bill Cunningham New York follows the daily life of 80-year-old Bill Cunningham, who is obsessed with photographing fashion he finds beautiful and interesting. His photos have appeared in the New York Times since 1978, and Bill has been the person documenting the street fashion of New York for over 40 years. Although he and his photography are widely known, very few people know the real Bill Cunningham. This documentary attempts to answer the question: Who is Bill Cunningham? 

I will say, I accidentally clicked on this documentary and when it started playing, I believe I said aloud, “What is THIS?”; yet, I was instantly hooked. Maybe it was my love for fashion? My soft spot for adorable older folks? Or the fact that he rolls around New York on a bicycle taking photos? Bill Cunningham is ADORABLE and he has a great eye for fashion. He relishes in the unique and the colorful. Bill has a clear vision of what he likes, and frequently in the documentary he runs to chase it, on foot or on bike. He will walk down the street and see a pair of shoes with an interesting heel and immediately stop to take a picture. This idea would amaze me if it were anyone, but an 80 year old man!?! I couldn’t stop watching it. Other clips show him riding his bike through busy New York intersections, seeing a colorful outfit, and whipping out his camera to snap a photo of them on the sidewalk, all while he’s still biking in traffic. The man is a fashion fanatic.

But street fashion isn’t all this documentary shows him shooting – he is regularly invited to attend and photograph charity events hosted by New York’s elite. There, he works the room and everyone who is anyone knows him by name. Bill is the true litmus test of whether your outfit is fabulous or not. He only photographs what he finds interesting, so if you’re not interesting, he’s not photographing – no matter who you are. Of course, Bill has his favorites: Brooke Astor, Iris Apfel and Patrick McDonald, who never seem to disappoint with their unique fashion perspectives. This documentary is a parade of interesting New Yorkers and fashion icons from around the world, as well as candid unknown street fashions. Did I mention he bikes everywhere? He bikes to/from gala events all over the city and to various New York neighborhoods to scout out the latest on the streets. With his unbiased interest in fashion and disinterest in fame, his bike takes him everywhere he needs to be to get his photos.

Bill definitely loves color. He also loves interesting shapes and is really only interested in clothes that real people can wear (kudos, Bill!). There is a great scene of Bill in the front row of a fashion show photographing while a sound clip explains he dislikes clothes that only look good on a model, or that particular model wearing them. He only photographs things that are interesting, new and wearable by “real people.” It is clear he has loved fashion forever and knows his fashion history well. Throughout the movie, he makes obscure fashion references and historical references the clothes are reminding him of. It is amazing that he has documented so much history and so many trends in one lifetime and never lost interest.

How can you not love this adorable guy?

The other storyline that weaves throughout the entire documentary is the repeated asking of the “Who is Bill Cunningham?” question. Bill Cunningham is a kind individual, obsessed with fashion, who has a very clear vision of what he likes and wants. As mentioned previously, it becomes clear early on in the film that while everyone knows who Bill is, very few know anything about him. The reality is that Bill’s whole life revolves around fashion, taking photos on the street and at events and then putting them together for the New York Times. The majority of Bill’s photographs are never published, but he has them documented and filed away in his many file cabinets. His apartment literally consists of file cabinets with a twin bed in the corner. On top of the file cabinets sit books about fashion, hundreds of books. His apartment, in Carnegie Hall at the time, doesn’t even have its own bathroom; the bathroom is down the hall.

As the film continues, we discover that Bill has very simple taste. He likes functional and inexpensive clothing, he wears the same outfit all the time, and simple inexpensive food. He prefers cheap coffee, and even laughs about how the Times coffee is too fancy. Bill is completely disinterested in fame or money and is instead motivated by his passion for fashion and his own freedom to do what he wants. Bill is from a working class family; he goes to church every Sunday and has never been in love or had a relationship ever. He says he’s too busy taking pictures of interesting fashion to have ever thought about a relationship. He has some friends but spends the few hours when he’s not working alone, usually filing away his photos. This sounds cold, but Bill is one of the kindest and quirkiest people I’ve ever seen. He talks about the equality of fashion and how he feels nothing is ever in or out, everything is in because fashion is art. He feels people should dress interestingly and take pride in showing who they are and wearing clothes that make them feel good. It’s really very sweet to watch him argue with his coworkers at the Times over layouts and what should go where on his spread for the week and how many photos he can fit.

This film is funny and inspiring. It does such a nice job documenting the life of an extraordinary older gentleman weaving through the streets of New York on his classic Schwinn bike with his film camera taking photos of only the fashion he finds interesting. You can’t help fall in love with his undeniably sweet personality and interesting means of acquiring his photographs. I highly recommend this film.

Bill bikes and shoots on the busy New York streets: AWESOME

6 thoughts on “Delightful and Quirky: Bill Cunningham New York”

  1. I second @Kilsu’s point.

    Also, this was my favorite movie last year. Seriously. I watched it on the plane to London…. AND on the way back.

    I love people who are unintentionally philosophical. (My sister is one of them. She frequently, generally in humor, makes hilarious sweeping statements about mankind or our relationship with animals, etc etc that is a legitimate philosophical point… and a mega progressive/radical one at that.) Bill Cunningham is brilliant for this reason. Such gems as:  “Fashion is the armor to survive every day life” and “If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do. That’s the key to the whole thing.” **

    I seriously can’t speak highly enough about it. At some point I’d really like to write about the sorts of people like Bill who live the way they do.

    Thanks for your review!!!

    AND EVERYONE GO WATCH THIS RIGHT NOW (I think I will).

    **I thiiiiiink I got these right. I had them down in a little notebook, but I wrote as I was watching and have never gone back to check!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this as much as i did (maybe even more). I really think i might be obsessed with Bill Cunningham. He is just delightful. I want him to be my friend- or have a tasteful reality show that just follows him around without disturbing/disrupting his life so I can observe him all the time. He is amazing.

      Hope you’re having fun watching it again :)

    2. Yes! I love the unintentionally philosophical! That describes my husband perfectly. He’s slightly less whimsical than Bill Cunningham, but also not as curmudgeonly as Karl Pilkington.

      I also love how unaffected Bill Cunningham is in the midst of a world built on affectation. He just loves awesome stuff that he sees around him.

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