“In hard times, men traditionally dress up to look affluent and successful,” writes Bill Cunningham in a New York Times article from 1988. “Since the stock market calamity last October, this trend has mushroomed and set off a reversal in the sartorial style of former peacocks. They have traded in their flamboyant, arty clothes for suits that have strong echoes of the 40s, when amply cut, double-breasted styles set the pace for the generation emerging from United States Army uniforms.”
Taking what we wear and using it to explain greater societal influences is one of the great challenges of the fashion journalist, and Cunningham was one of the best of his time. Unlike now, where writers are more commonly situated behind their computers on a day-to-day basis, Cunningham was stationed on the street, observing the everyday New Yorker – and occasionally snapping them for his pages – for hours at a time. It’s here that the famed photographer made his mark on the New York fashion landscape, dissecting the manner in which people dressed and accompanying his photographs with sharp commentary.
In the 1970s, when Cunningham began documenting style professionally, there was no alternative to finding out what the prevailing mood on the street was; one couldn’t simply scroll through Instagram for inspiration. He was also largely disinterested in events and “celebrities with their free dresses”, citing that true style was found on the unsuspecting passer-by. So oblivious was he to the draw of the celebrity that he once inadvertently took a photo of Greta Garbo, not because she was famous, but because the coat she was wearing had an interesting shoulder; the series of photos landed him his regular On the Street pages in the New York Times, which he maintained for close to 40 years.