“We’re in the age of the cookie-cutter sameness. There are few that are rarities, someone who doesn’t look like 10 million others.”
These are the words of Bill Cunningham, arguably the patron saint of street fashion across the globe who passed away this past June. Prior to the end of WWII, fashion was traditionally held in the tight grasp of the elite class and handed down to the general public through a process called the “trickle-down effect.” Institutions of high fashion had the final say in terms of what appeared on the runway and what would eventually be worn by the masses. It was not until the end of the Second World War that an incentive for change occurred.
Due to the drastic rise of standardization during the 1950s, which included the replacement of urban life with suburbia, the francization of retail chains, and the increase of televisions in homes across the US, people began to search for an outlet of individuality. In an age of monotony, where could authenticity be found? One answer was through the breaking free of typical fashion standards of the time. Many cultural theorists have suggested that the edgy enticement of those “from the wrong side of the tracks” became an appealing means of escape from the tedious circumstances of what would become known as “late capitalism.”
The group that found this new fashion alternative most agreeable were the mass numbers of children born just after the war, otherwise known as the “baby boomer” generation. Teenagers during the end of the 1950s and early 1960s in the US, this group of adolescents became an astounding force in the cultural and economic sphere. The attire they witnessed on the streets became far more chic and relatable in comparison to that of the high fashion world, which still saw itself as being of a greater and more sophisticated status than anything the youth culture could provide. Thus began the development of the “bubble up” trend in the world of fashion.
The appearance of each individual street fashion statement carried with it a set of beliefs and values. In other words, a new way of life. Furthermore, while the tradition of using dress and body decor to bolster sociocultural group identities has been present throughout the history of humankind, this was the first time that people in society began to use their material appearance as a way to connect with total strangers who shared similar ideals in order to form a makeshift “tribe.” As an effect, the upper class had no choice but to relinquish its exclusive ownership over what was considered “good” style. America soon learned to welcome this new democratization of fashion.
The goal of finding a sense of identity and camaraderie with others who were considered a part of one’s street fashion “tribe” began to dissipate around the arrival of the 21st century, a time in which we still exist – the postmodern era. Instead, the incentive to present oneself to the world as a vibrant individual to promote one’s uniqueness in a material way became the increasingly popular alternative.
However, although there is now a diminished need for people to feel connected to each other through similar style tastes, this does not equate to the notion that street style’s influence has lessened. On the contrary, with the huge influx of individuals pioneering the fashion front, the mass and linear process of predictable trends of looks had been essentially trivialized. This continues to bring into question the significance of uniformity in society beyond just the realm of clothing and material.
It was one thing to be a part of this rapidly growing style statement, one which was becoming increasingly abundant in America’s largest urban cities; it was quite another to have the idea to start documenting this phenomenon. Enter Bill Cunningham, a New York Times photographer who decided to turn his lenses toward the most eye-catching fashionistas on the streets of “the city that never sleeps.’
Starting in the early 1970s by peddling around on a bicycle in his iconic blue worker’s suit, this trendspotting photographer chose to snap the most innovative and unusual in their taste for attire, his favorite so-called “birds of paradise.” If one happened to be privileged enough to be the subject of one of Cunningham’s photo portraits, it was treated as the greatest of compliments. A true legend in the fashion and photography world, Cunningham has been heralded as a national treasure by those who knew him in the industry. He was awarded the highest honor in the French cultural domain – the Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.
Bill Cunningham may have been the first to recognize the importance of bringing street fashion to the attention of the masses, but he certainly has not been the last. The newly-inspired fashion world went on to produce some incredible photographers. Prominent figures today include Scott Schuman, creator of The Sartorialist, Tommy Ton, a fashion photographer who appears to have a startling instinct for what will become the newest trend long before it hits the runway, and Garance Doré, the former partner of Scott Schuman who went off to start her own street fashion blog that has gone on to be critically acclaimed in its own right. In the age of social media, time has never been better for street savvy fashionistas to show off their style and make their mark on the Internet world via fashion blogs and other digital platforms.
Particularly with the rise of Instagram, many individuals are now able to express themselves while gaining thousands – if not millions – of viewers and followers who appreciate the same sense of style. In an ironic twist of events, it seems as if individualism has turned once again into a commercialized institution. Websites like Who What Wear, Lookbook, and Streetpeeper now keep up to date with the latest trends seen on the streets. Companies now give advice on what to wear to be the most original and stand out from the crowd.
At the biannual arrival of New York Fashion Week, the focus of attire is not just on what people wear on the runway, but off it as well. The rise of Instagram has allowed fashion bloggers to profit from their sense of style. Notable people such as Kyrzayda Rodriguez, Christina Caradona, and Blake Von D have made their name into a brand, defying the notion that one needs to be part of a company to make an impact on the fashion world. It’s all thanks to a bold sense of personal style, a little bit of photogenicity, and the courage to show off their original take on what’s in vogue.
In loving memory of Bill Cunningham: 1929-2016
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