Fash­ion Climb­ing: A New York Life

Bill Cun­ning­ham Chatto & Win­dus, $40

Metro Magazine NZ - - Books - RE­VIEW — FRANCES WALSH

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”.

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