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Bill Cunningham’s photography was more than just the standard street style. For decades, Bill’s work for The New York Times captured fashion in a raw, yet upbeat manner that highlighted all facets of the city. “He took in the street as a whole and picked out the seemingly random trendlets that real people were adopting,” Véronique Hyland said about Bill for The Cut. “Fashion’s near-obsessive emphasis on “personal style” and street fashion now owes a great deal to his influence.”
Before his photography work, Bill worked in the high-end boutique Chez Ninon, where he dyed a red suit black for Jacqueline Kennedy for JFK’s funeral. He also served in the US Army and worked as a milliner. Bill soon quit the retail business when John Fairchild of Women’s Wear Daily asked him to cover fashion. This led to opportunities at the Chicago Tribune and famously Details. Bill’s work for Details addressed fashion as a studied art, which included the deconstructive fashions of Martin Margiela and unbiased fashion criticism.
Another noted project of Bill’s was his vintage costume photography of Editta Sherman. Bill captured Editta dressed in a range of historical, high fashion clothing that was paired against New York City’s urban landscape. The project resulted into his photo book “Facades” which was published in 1978.
As Bill moved on as a street photographer for The New York Times, his take on street style fashion became a game changer. He gave an outsider view on the industry with a focus on original fashion and personal style.
Throughout his time at The New York Times, Bill was spotted bicycling around Manhattan in his signature outfit. Bill religiously wore a blue French street-cleaner jacket with a pair of khakis and comfy sneakers, which was an outfit that was far from the fashion crowd he photographed.
Bill’s simple style mimicked his life. As documented in the film “Bill Cunningham New York“, he never lived a lavish life. He resided in a simple apartment, eat egg sandwiches, and never drank anything but water at a party.
Bill’s signature appearance also recalls a trend that he covered for The New York Times, normcore. The plain clothed, 90s trend appeared after the rise of Vetements and K-Hole, who is believed to have coined the term. Normcore is extremely popular with adults under 35, and replicates the styles of the hit 90s sitcom Seinfeld and comedian Larry David by way of loose, affordable clothing and comfort-based tennis shoes.
This trend of anti-fashion reflects a generational shift of millennials who are forced to live a simpler life due to rising debt and lack of jobs. Bill’s simplicity and frugal attire, who was a part of Silent Generation and grew up in financially dire times, may be the reason why their fashions were so similar.
To see more of Bill’s work, visit The New York Times’ On The Street page.