Authenticity and Joy | Modern Millinery

Millinery Operations with Kristin Silverman

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what I’m going to write about. But two days after my last “Millinery Operations” post, I knew what this month would be about — when I heard that Bill Cunningham had died.

Bill Cunningham New York
Bill Cunningham taking photos at a demonstration to save the NY Garment District (screen capture from the film Bill Cunningham New York).

Bill was one of the most important people in the fashion industry — but he wasn’t owned by it. He was truly independent; he prided himself on never selling out. He was 100% authentic. And he was absolutely passionate about fashion.

If you haven’t seen the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, do yourself a favor and watch it. I’ve seen it at least four times, and it made me love and admire this man I never met. I was truly saddened when he passed away. Bill was a milliner in his younger years, but despite my hat-loving bias, that is not what I found so fascinating and wonderful about him.

Bill Cunningham was a milliner in his younger years (screen capture from the film "Bill Cunningham New York").
Bill Cunningham was a milliner in his younger years (screen capture from the film Bill Cunningham New York).

Maybe the best way to honor someone who has passed away is to learn from them. Here are the lessons I have learned from Bill’s work:

Bill highlighted the fashions he admired — completely separate from how expensive it was or who was wearing it. Talking about all the invitations he receives, he said “Don’t bother sending a guest list because I’m not interested.” He didn’t get caught up in celebrity culture. He wasn’t impressed with someone being famous or rich. He photographed clothes that interested him and would take a pass on photographing a rich celebrity wearing something boring.

As artists, this is something so worth emulating. Fads and trends and what celebrities are up to — these things aren’t truly important. The best artists find their own point of view and create authentic work without constantly calculating the way to make the biggest profit.

Bill loved fashion; he was obsessed with it. He wasn’t obsessive in the way the fashion industry as a whole is obsessive. (Designers today are under constant pressure to create. It used to be spring/summer and fall/winter. Now they have things like “pre-fall.”) He had a relaxed approach to his own fashion, wearing boring utilitarian clothes (and his famous blue smock). He loved fashion for its own sake. He delighted in everything about it: colors, textures, silhouettes, playfulness, elegance. He loved to witness emerging trends, and he loved to see someone wearing something completely unique.

Let’s not become so jaded that we can’t experience joy and a thrill when we see something beautiful or exciting. Art and beauty are there for us to find if we look for it like Bill did.

Bill Cunningham's millinery work (screen capture from the film "Bill Cunningham New York").
Bill Cunningham’s millinery work (screen capture from the film Bill Cunningham New York).
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