Fashion Climbing: A New York Life
Bill Cunningham Chatto & Windus, $40
The posthumous memoir of one-time milliner Bill
Cunningham is an instructive and joyous curiosity.
“Bill knew a great deal about surfaces,” writes New Yorker staffer Hilton Als in the preface to the book, which ends in the 1960s when women stopped wearing hats, and before Cunningham’s career as the New York Times fashion and society photographer began. And well before he had become a Praetorian guard of style, giving Anna Wintour for one the heebie-jeebies. “We all dress for Bill,” the editor-in-chief of Vogue was to reveal in a 2010 documentary about Cunningham.
In Fashion Climbing, describing his childhood growing up middle-class Irish Catholic in Boston, Cunningham could have been conjuring those Philip Larkin lines — “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” Aged four in 1933, he was caught in his sister’s pink organdie full-skirted dress: “My mother beat the hell out of me, and threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls’ clothes again.” Cunningham, however, proved to be a cheerful recusant.
Easter Sunday, while a high point in the liturgical calendar, was for Cunningham “the dandy day” of his life, when he got a new outfit, and recorded the state of corsages worn by ladies in the congregation. He squirrelled away money from his paper run to buy a black crepe dress cut on the bias — which his mother returned. “By the time I was twelve, the family was in a state of frenzy over how they could knock this artistic nature out of me.”
They sent him to learn carpentry. His furniture often featured curlicues—“Irish baroque,” dubs Cunningham, whose gee-whiz innocence could nevertheless incorporate bite. Amusing situations are “a howl” and he “has pups” and clutches his rosary beads in times of anxiety, but he sat next to “a real lulu” of a fashion journalist at a Givenchy show in Paris — gum-chewing, dumpy fingers, five-foot-tall, white boots over bow legs, tweed beret that ill-matched a yellow-gold suit and sequined blouse. “All I could think was this lady was telling others what to wear.” Cunningham passes judgment on other pedlars of advice, bridal consultants, for example. They should be “chloroformed”.
At the time when Dior’s 1947 New Look — all tight bodices, full skirts and radical femininity — was displacing the austerity of the war years, Cunningham started work at a department store in Boston. His duties as a stock boy aside, he photographed fashion shows, read the ohso-styley New Yorker magazine, and practised visual triage. He learnt, he writes, how to observe a woman and her threads, “taking her apart in my mind’s eye and putting the right kind of clothes on her”. He also pursued what was to be a life-long habit of perving: he gate-crashed dances and balls, taking notes on the way in which gowns moved on their wearers. Not that conspicuous consumption didn’t disturb him: “As much as I am drawn to it all … I have the strongest desire to escape to the discomforts of the poor.”
Cunningham next sets up as a milliner, “to bring happiness to the world by making women an inspiration to themselves and everyone who saw them”. His label was William J., so as not to embarrass his parents. In his stride, he designed a kind of “portable beach cabana”, with an umbrella-sized brim from which hung a floorlength celluloid fringe. “With each season, I gave my critics something to talk about, and talk they did. Too bad they didn’t shut their mouths long enough to buy something new and different.” His focus was unswerving; drafted into the army in 1950, and on manoeuvres, he covered his helmet with “a dazzling garden of flowers and grass”. Once back in the land of chic, William J. lasted eight years before custom dried up. Cunningham hopped on a Greyhound bus, saw America, inspected women, and had a thought. “I had stayed too long hidden behind the potted plants of New York’s Plaza Hotel. Very few women live that kind of la-di-da life, where they get all dressed up like the slick fashion magazines advise.” Which was not to say that they lacked taste — “God’s graces are just as abundant to the poor,” Cunningham writes. “A servant can have great taste in tying her apron.”
Some of Cunningham’s pronouncements, both egalitarian and disdainful, made it into print when he began writing for the trade magazine Women’s Wear Daily, and later filing copy from European fashion shows to newspapers. Editors sometimes flinched at his lack of literary skill. The workings of verbs were a mystery to him, and he spelt phonetically. The Chicago Tribune, he writes, was flummoxed “how I’d gone so far with so little education”.
Maybe they were diverted, as readers of Fashion Climbing may be, by Cunningham’s belief in, and advocacy for, the transformative powers of fashion. He writes of seeing one Paris show: “The effect was that of peace, repose, or a dream—rather like opium.” (Cunningham may have been reaching for a theoretical simile here, having stated elsewhere in the memoir that he never drank alcohol, it dulling the mind and all.) It was a showing of the iconoclast Cristóbal Balenciaga, who threw ropes of rubies over tweed, and more: “the final scream of freedom” was the Spaniard’s parading of diamond bracelets on the outside of long white gloves. Snobs, explains Cunningham, had been telling readers for years that only prostitutes wore jewels over gloves. “Incidentally,” Cunningham clarifies, “prostitutes are very fashion conscious. You’d be amazed at how chic and elegant they carry themselves off.”
My mother beat the hell out of me, and threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls’ clothes again.
Fashion Climbing, for all its pleasures, does raise an uncomfortable question. Did Cunningham intend it for publication? After he died in 2016, aged 87, his manuscript was found by his family, and auctioned. Giving advice on enduring in the fashion industry, he writes that “the only way to last is never to let anyone really know you”.