An American Girl in Washington

Lessons from Bill Cunningham

Posted in All about moi by AGinDC on 29 March 2011


Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Last night I went to my favorite DC theatre, the E Street Cinema to watch Bill Cunningham New York.  Like most people not in the fashion business, I had never really heard of or thought about Bill Cunningham beyond reading his Sunday styles section and occasionally wondering why the NY Times videos feature an old man talking about fashion.  Well, after watching this wonderful documentary, everything is illuminated.  Here are a few of the lessons that I learned from Bill Cunningham:


1.  Pay your dues

Paying your dues may be unfashionable for my generation, but there’s a reason you have to do it.  I am an honest believer in starting from the bottom and working your way up.  This isn’t something that most 20-somethings want to do, mostly because we grew up in the Mickey Mouse Club generation, when it seemed all too easy to make your first million at age 12 and if you hadn’t published a book by your freshman year in college, there was clearly something wrong with you.  But for those of us who are interested in substance over style, who are interested in quality and intellect and careers that last longer than the latest pop craze, and in actually making a difference, there is nothing more valuable than learning from the best, working from the bottom, and paying your dues.  Bill Cunningham worked 24 hours a day for 60 years, and it shows.  He’s the best, and that’s how you get there.

2. When you’re comfortable with who you are, people will always assume you’re someone.

It cracked me up that people who had known BC for decades upon decades knew nothing about his personal life.  They all assumed that since he lives like a monk and is friends with everyone from the well-dressed bum on the street to the fabulous Brooke Astor, that he must have grown up wealthy and aristocratic.  He didn’t.  He just doesn’t walk around asking permission and cowering and standing in awe.  He isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone.  He is who he is, he does what he does, and he gets along with everyone because of it.

3.  When you love what you do, you want to do it all of the time.

When BC was in Paris being presented with the coveted Chevalier des Arts (my professor got one while I was in college and he loved it more than his only child), it was hilarious that he a) wore the same street worker’s smock that he’s been wearing for decades, b) seemed to think that everyone in the room was more deserving than him, and c) kept working while he was at his own ceremony!  He was snapping pictures of people when they were supposed to be taking pictures of him!  It was divine.  And his speech was marvelous.  He clearly hadn’t written a thing, he just spoke from his heart.  About what?  The clothes.  Because that’s what he cares about.  It is the rarest thing in the world to find someone that passionate about their work, so much so that it consumes their whole lives, but boy does it consume BC’s.  And while I would never sacrifice as much as he has for his art, I can’t help but admire that singular kind of passion.  Which takes me to number 4.

4.   There’s sacrifice, and then there’s sacrifice.

BC is remarkable for many reasons but they all come down to his singular commitment to his craft.  He is so committed to his voice and vision as a photographer that he has forsaken everything from huge paychecks from Conde Nast (when they pay you, they own you) to even a glass of water at a society event (I don’t want to be wined and dined).  This man is the Mother Theresa of fashion.  He even forsook the opportunity to have a family over his career, although he didn’t see it that way.  Nothing but his work ever even occurred to him.  This is unrealistic for 99.999% of the population.  But it’s incredible that even one human being can be so dedicated and so ethical and so remarkable at this, or any, time.

5.  Always look your best.

I ask myself every day before I walk out the door, “Would The Sartorialist want to take a picture of me today?”.  Nine times out of nine the answer is a resounding “no”, but I’m trying.  Unlike the people who both the Sartorialist and the original Sartorialist (BC) stop on the streets, I have yet to fully realize my personal style, and the style that I wish to attain is too caught up in insecurities about my weight and the shallowness of my wallet to bring to fruition.  However, I at least try to look good enough that I wouldn’t be humiliated if died in that outfit, that I would be comfortable flirting in it with my future husband, should he cross my path, and that, if my future husband were to cross my path, wouldn’t send him screaming in the other direction.  I feel that is the best I can hope for at this stage in my fashion development.  But I’m okay with that.  Because even if I’m not yet the Grace Kelly of my dreams, dreamily waltzing around town in poofy skirts, kitten heels, a Scarlett O’Hara waist and a cone bra, at least I’m trying.  And the idea that Sartorialists are out there gives me that little extra motivation to keep trying a little harder not to be boring old me.

I highly recommend Bill Cunningham New York.  See it, and then tell me if you learned any lessons of your own.




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