How Bill Cunningham Set Out to Create His Perfect Lifestyle

By Katie Gilbert

If you haven’t heard of Bill Cunningham, here are some essential facts: (1) He is a founder of street style photography. (2) He shares his photos in a fashion column for the New York Times, called "On the Street." (3) He had his kitchen appliances taken out of his apartment to make room for more file cabinets containing his thousands of photos. (4) He has just turned 86 and still rides his bike around New York City everyday to take photos of unique clothing. Learn more about this inspiring senior. 

Bill Cunningham Documentary

In a documentary by Zeitgeist Films called Bill Cunningham New York, you are granted glimpses into Bill's life that help explain these eccentric facts about him. Every day he wakes up in an apartment filled with photos, metal file cabinets, and towering stacks of fashion books. He then walks through the studio wearing a blue smock, smiling and laughing while he shows the camera man around the cramped studio. 

Later he is camping out on Fifth Avenue to take photos of distinct clothing and trends that he finds on the street. His head is always filled with ideas and notes on sartorial themes he finds including anything from the use of cerulean blue in clothing and hair to an abundance of "picture frame collars" seen on the street.  

His work is no doubt inspiring. However, what makes Bill this week's Golden Inspiration is the evident joy behind the work.   

Finding a Life Filled With Joy 

As explained in the documentary, he never set out to make money by taking photos for Women's Daily or the New York Times during his career. Instead, he wanted the freedom to do what he loves to do. Seemingly meaning, being creative, getting outside everyday, and observing the fun and beauty available to people through fashion.  

You can see the joy he has in his work even by simply listening to his commentaries available in the Style section of the New York Times online. He says things like "the clothes were delightful. Just delightful!" and "His outfit is just so New York — It was wonderful." 

He is never short on these positive adjectives or a smile that is even apparent through an audio recording.  

When you take a look at Bill's background, it makes sense that he has the philosophy on life that he has. Throughout his year, he never stops living simply or going after what makes him happy.  

For example, he got his start in fashion at Bonwit Teller as a stock boy but only after the executive had noticed him watching the passerbys on the street. Bill explained that this was his hobby. From there, he arrived in New York in 1948, living with his aunt and uncle while working at Bonwit Teller again but this time in advertising.  

During the Korean War he has had to take a break from "his hobby" and job at Bonwit's when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. However, when he returned he came back with a new passion to pursue. He became a milliner, owning a hat shop on Jobs Lane in Southampton.  

Bill loved hats and the business made him happy. However, in 1966, he found a way to make his hobby of observing New York Fashion into a vocation. A photographer he knew gave him a simple camera and told him to "use it like a notebook." Cunningham describes, "that was the real beginning." From there, he started to live and breathe his new job.  

Bill Cunningham Working

You can tell, even from the contents of his studio, that he has since simplified his life down to just the things he loves. For that reason, he wears a smock with a lot of pockets just to help him carry around film, he works incredible hours, and spends 7 days a week taking photos most often. Yet, all of his work habits, don't seem like work for Bill. He smiles throughout it all even while biking in the rain or snow.  

Gaining Joy Through The Ages

In the documentary, Patrick McDonald explains an essential part of Bill's lifestyle. He truly believes in painting a life that he wants to live. Just as some paint themselves in accordance to how they want to appear on the street, Bill has found a way to create an ideal life full of passion and joy for what he does. Nothing else, save family, friends, and the occasional meal, matter much to him leading him to be the positive and accomplished person that he is today. 

The best part is that he has been able to keep an account of decades of New York life and fashion. The accomplishment shows how privileged Bill has been to be able to see so much of a a singular culture. A privilege he has only been able to gain through over 50 years of taking photos. 

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