STREET FASHION, HYENA STYLE
Street Fashion, Hyena Style. A Melbourne Arts Club Report
Street fashion, hyena style. The human brain contains the frontal and temporal lobes, cerebral cortex, hypothalamus and various other parts. Tests reveal my brain also contains a personal stylist slash fashion critic sphere, which in a nanosecond, re-dresses people, as if they are my old Barbie dolls. Brown shoes would work better; a belt would really bring that together; unbraid your hair lady, you’re not a horse.
My brain redeems itself slightly, also instantly appreciating unique and interestingly dressed people, offering silent congratulations on their overall look. In fact, I think it might be the same area of my brain, because right after it celebrates that well dressed lady person crossing the street, it turns on me, saying, “Hey frumpo, stop dressing like an escaped mental patient. Also, have you thought about getting a better haircut?”
With permanent, automatic fashion commentary as part of my grey matter, I obviously felt akin to Bill Cunningham when he came to my attention through the documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York.’ The film centres on his fight to continue living at New York’s Carnegie Hall as an artist-in-residence, while head honchos want to turn the few remaining residences into a call centre. He’s an 83 year old guy who photographs people in New York in great clothes – the stunners, he calls them. My brain is also taking stock, but usually in the Docklands where I am lucky enough to work. We are one and the same.
The evil landlord vs quirky artist story is a vehicle to examine Bill’s life. Photographing fantastically dressed New Yorker’s on the street since World War II, he’s captured not only amazing fashion across six decades, but a chunk of New York’s history must also lie in the hundreds of filing cabinets that fill his Carnegie Hall apartment. His bed is a mattress on top of a row of the filing cabinets. His street photography was a breakthrough for the times. A 1978 photo of Greta Garbo was the first to be published without a person’s consent. Reportedly refusing payment for his work, he won’t even accept a glass of water at an event so he can’t be owned by or owe anyone.
He rides a bicycle around NY in a blue dustman’s jacket snapping photos, having had more than 30 treadlies stolen over the years. He quit Women’s Wear Daily when they wanted to use his photos in what is now a very popular form of fashion reporting – the hot or not, ‘what not to wear’ segments. Describing himself as a record keeper, he says takes street shots to catalogue how people translate high fashion into the everyday. And thank gosh for that, because runway shots are a snore. I cry with boredom, but everyday people and their fashion choices are fascinating.
“The main thing I love about street photography is that you find the answers you don't see at the fashion shows. If you just cover the designers in the shows, that's only one facet. You also need the street and the evening hours. If you cover the three things, you have the full picture of what people are wearing.” Fascinating idea sir!
Melbourne Arts Club photographer, J Forsyth and yours truly took to the streets of Brunswick recently to find the stunners and photograph them. Mounting our bikes in our dustman’s coats, we rode off with Bill on our minds, and my internal fashion stylist perched in prime position in my mind’s eye. Starting at a Pub Footy match in West Brunswick, we arrived to find our pals dressed suspiciously well for a group most likely hung over on a Sunday afternoon. Word must have gotten around for there was a distinct whiff of grooming in the air.
Bill, being the eccentric gent he is, probably doesn’t notice those who stalk him and do secret non-poses, for he says he only sees the clothes not the people. But I have been out with J and her camera before, and when she whips it out, posture improvements and nonchalant pouts appear at a cracking pace. People just want to get ‘discovered’. Still. At a Brunswick footy oval.
“Put it away”, we told our pals, before nervously starting our Bill Cunningham Brunswick mission. A plan was needed, so like hyenas of the street photography world, we started by grabbing people who’d strayed from the herd.
Jace, a man mountain in a grubby Unicorns t-shirt and black jeans, boots and a killer red beard stood out for the gruffness of his look.
“Tell me about your fashion choices today, Jace?”
“Well this is the t-shirt I just played footy in. It’s dirty, stinky, sweaty and smelly so I decided to leave it on”, he explained.
So function proves to have form, but after the stench warning, we tried to make a quick exit, but were thwarted by our first jilted clothes horse, who wanted to sartorialised.
“Why you taking Jace’s photo? He’s not even dressed nice.”
Dashing off, we encountered Jeannie in a brightly embroidered jacket and excellent choice of dog, named Pico. Her favourite item, Jeannie nabbed this outstanding jacket at a market in China and described it as warm like a rug; super appealing on a super crisp winter day. Barelegged Jim caught our attention in a pair of short shorts reminiscent of eighties dad-wear. Teamed with an oversized polar fleece that could’ve also been borrowed from my dad, Jim claimed this outfit was his Sunday best before admitting ‘off the record’ that all his pants were dirty. His casual disregard for fashion and freezing temperatures gave him the appeal of the renegade. When I asked Gavin - an older gent in an excellent knit and driz-a-bone combo - if we could take his photo for a fashion article, he responded, “Is this fashion?”, before stealthily slipping his Melbourne Bitter under his jacket like a guilty teen, and smiling for the camera. His dog Stephanie was also an excellent accessory of choice – no one expected 60-plus Gavin to have a Jack Russell. Sporting a garage sale jacket, velvet pants with socks and clogs, Kate was surprised we wanted to take her photo, looking down at herself with arms wide, like one does if they’ve spilled their lunch on their lap. Kate intrigued me with her downward glances and her net shopping-bag-handbag containing a homemade smoothy in a jar. Always enjoying a successful repurposing, the net shopping bag turned handbag and smoothy transporter was a standout. Tess’ floral pants and patterned sunnies caught my eye – a pair of dead stock Swatch glasses from the 90s, which brought shine to a winters’ day. And a reminder that the 90s were as horrific as the 80s, with the main difference being all the houses were painted federation green, and people were sure they had become more stylish. Later on Victoria Street, Shannon’s black and white coat and paisley op shop dress caught my attention, as did her description of an op shopping addiction fit for a 12-step program. Also on Victoria Street, we did a screaming u turn to get a photo of Jess, whose red afro was a beacon, a crowning glory, a show (and bicycle) stopper. Bill again: “I think fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they're horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It's mirroring exactly our times.”
What we saw mirrored that Sunday afternoon was mainly recycled and repurposed fashion via op shops and garage sales (and dogs as accessories). Our times are bleak, says the Herald Sun and the opposition leader. People are turning in droves to op shopping and garage sales just to cloth themselves. It would seem this is not about fashion at all!
If we held this mirror up elsewhere, it would tell a different story. Story telling is Bill Cunningham’s game and spending a day talking to strangers about why they chose that outfit was exhilarating and promoted a real sense of community in me that I didn’t expect. People shared all types of personal tidbits and insights and not once did my brain’s fashion stylist and critic get up in anyone’s fashion business. Good day.