Maybe Project Runway’s to blame, maybe The Devil Wears Prada, but for the past few years there has been a surplus of documentaries about the fashion industry, with profiles of designers like Valentino (Valentino: The Last Emperor), Yves Saint-Laurent (several in fact), even young designers (Seamless) and Vogue magazine’s editor (The September Issue). (By contrast, I can only recall one fashion doc from the 1990s: Unzipped, about a young designer named Isaac Mizrahi.) Is there really that much to say about dressmaking?
Maybe not, but while Bill Cunningham New York fits broadly within the category of fashion documentaries, its subject is unusual because he eschews the trappings of haute couture even as he’s inextricably a part of it — a huge part, really.
If you don’t read the New York Times, you might not recognize Cunningham’s name, and even if you do read it, it may not have registered with you. For about, well, maybe 1,000 years, Cunningham has chronicled New York society with his candid photos of the glitterati on the Evening Hours page. At the same time, however, he has documented real fashion — how New Yorkers dress in their daily lives — with his page On the Street, where he teases out trends (from hats to men in skirts to hip-hoppers allowing their jeans to dangle around their knees). Anna Wintour may tell us what we should wear; Cunningham shows us what we do.
“We all get dressed for Bill,” Wintour observes.
What makes Cunningham such an interesting character is how impervious he seems to the responsibility he effortlessly wields. He loves fashion, yes, but he’s not a slave to it himself. He scurries around Manhattan (even in his 80s) on his bicycle (he’s had dozens; they are frequently stolen), sometimes in a nondescript tux but mostly in jeans, a ratty blue smock and duck shoes, looking more like a homeless shoeshiner than the arbiter of great fashion. He flits through the city like a pixie with his 35mm camera (film-loaded, not digital), a vacant, toothy smile peaking out behind the lens, snapping the denizens of Babylon whether they want it or not.
One of the funniest moments is when strangers shoo him away as some lunatic paparazzo, unaware how all the well-heeled doyens on the Upper East would trade a nut to have Cunningham photograph them for inclusion in the Times. Patrick McDonald, the weirdly superficial modern dandy (he competed as a wannabe designer on the flop reality series Launch My Line a few seasons back), seems to exist with the hope that Cunningham will shoot him. And shoot him he does.
Many artists are idiosyncratic, even eccentric, but Cunningham is supremely odd by any standards. He lives in a tiny studio near Carnegie Hall filled with filing cabinets cluttered with decades of film negatives on the same floor as a crazy old woman, a kind of urban variation on Grey Gardens. He knows tons of people but most of them seem to know very little about him. By the time near the end when the filmmaker, director Richard Press, finally comes out and ask him outright whether he’s gay, Cunningham arches in that prickly New England way, never really answering outright, though he says he’s never — never — had a romantic relationship. Things like that were simply not discussed by men of his generation.
In some ways, we never really know any more about Cunningham at the end than any of his friends do, and perhaps even him. Cunningham comes across as defiantly non-self-reflective. He lets his work do all the talking for him. And that work has a lot to say on its own.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2011.
1. Republican Congressman Chris Lee, who abruptly resigned Feb. 9 after Gawker published his shirtless Craigslist photos, wasn’t only looking for cisgender women with whom to have adulterous sex. Gawker now reports that Lee had also posted an ad (above) seeking “passable” transsexual or cross-dressing women, which could explain why he resigned so quickly. It could also seriously complicate Lee’s efforts to smooth things over with his wife.
2. A marriage equality bill that passed the Maryland Senate last week is suddenly in jeopardy in the House, where it was once thought to be assured of passage. The Washington Blade reports that the bill is short of the 71 votes it needs, with at least one former co-sponsor having caved under enormous pressure from the religious right.
3. The King’s Speech was the big winner Sunday night at the Oscars, taking home five awards including best picture, best director and best actor. For a complete list of results from the 83rd annual Academy Awards, go here.
Given how well the Kia was performing atop the glacier that’s enveloped Dallas, I decided to do some totally unnecessary travel and take a detour over to the strip on my way to the office. What I found was Cedar Springs, like most roadways in Dallas, iced over and abandoned — except for the gentleman below. He was standing on the corner of Throckmorton in shorts, periodically beating his cane against the sign post and yelling something incoherent, although I imagined it was along the lines of, “Is this all you got, Boreas?”
DV freelance photographer Chuck Dube of MarceloMedia just sent over some great shots from Aspen Gay Ski Week, which marked its 34th year from Jan. 16-23. Dube notes that this year’s festivities were MC’d by Dallas’ own Paul J. Williams.
“The energy and enthusiasm from the participants in this year’s Costume Contest far exceeded recent years and that energy greatly contributed to this being one of the best we’ve had in my 10 years of hosting!” Williams said. “On top of that, I was able to bring back three of my favorite performers for our Comedy Night who performed to a nearly sold-out house.”
True fans of Katy Perry probably got this word first. The pop singer announced on Facebook that she’ll be on the road with her California Dreams 2011 world tour. The tour itself is sounding pretty interactive. The press release says the following:
Katy is planning on interacting with fans through social media networks throughout the California Dreams tour. Using Facebook Places/Deals, fans will be able to check into the venues each night to receive special treats. Fans will also be able to submit their own photos of the show via Twitter which will be incorporated into the live show and also live on her website.
That’ sounds like a whole lotta work. Can’t we just go see the show?
Whilst touring, the release says Perry is about to release “E.T.,” as the album’s fourth single and begin shooting the video.