Bill Cunningham’s first love was fashion, but the Big Apple came a close second. He left Boston for New York aged nineteen, losing his family’s support, but enjoying the infinite luxury of freedom. Living on a scoop of Ovaltine a day, he would run down to Fifth Avenue to feed on the spectacular sights of the window displays – then run back to his tiny studio to work all night.
Working as ‘William J’ - to spare his parents’ blushes - Bill became one of the most celebrated hat designers of the 1950s, his hats were featured in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. Bill’s mission was to bring happiness by making beautiful things – even if it meant pawning his bike to fund fancy-dress outfits for all his friends.
When women stopped wearing hats and his business was forced to close, Bill worked as a fashion journalist, touring the couture houses of Europe. But New York remained his home, and it was as a street photographer of the fashions of the city that he became well known, in a job that would last almost forty years.
Fashion Climbing is the enchanting memoir he left behind. Found after passing away in June 2016 aged 87, it captures the madcap times of his early career and the fashion scene of the mid-century. Written with the spark and wit of Holly Golightly, and brimming over with Bill’s infectious joy for life, it is a gift to all who seek beauty, whatever our style or status.
Left - Fashion Climbing - Bill Cunningham - £16.99
TheChicGeek says, “We don’t have the same affection for Bill on this side of the pond as the Americans, but we know him from the 2010 documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York’, charting his life as a street style photographer for The New York Times. (I probably need to watch this again soon).
One thing to point out about this autobiography is, it doesn’t touch on his later life as a photographer. It focuses only on his early years, moving from a hat designer to fashion journalist and ends in the late 1960s.
Bill leaves his conservative Irish catholic family in Boston, who tried to curtail his creativity, via a job at department store Bonwit’s and on to New York. Bill finds himself making hats and using his imagination during the heyday of Dior’s ‘New Look’ and America’s obsession with following Paris’ lead.
Bill takes us back to a time when people applauded at fashion shows and not the one handed clap while social media-ing you get today. As delicate a bird as one of his favourite feathered creations, Cunningham projects himself as an outsider purely driven by the love of fashion. He’s exasperated by the social climbing and the following of fashion of women during this part of the 20th century.
This is America at the height of its power. Post war and the golden age of the American dream, this autobiography works through the decades when America peaked and was a powerhouse of fashion consumption and was its biggest patron. Bill must surely be the only man to combine time in the American army while sitting frow at Parisian couture houses.
This is a fun read, and, while it feels exaggerated, it is endearing and is an amusing look at America trying to find its fashion feet. Bill isn’t particularly modest though and wants to continually remind you how individual and original he is. At one point he proclaims he’s ten years ahead of fashion and how nobody gets him. Nobody wants to be ten years ahead of fashion, plus you’d think somebody would have moved into something other than hats faster if you were so ahead of your time.
The hat business dries up and he starts to use his expertise documenting the latest fashion shows and writing fashion articles for WWD. He certainly doesn't have many positive things to say about the fashion press and notes how badly dressed they mostly are.
The book charts his struggle, particularly financially, but you get a feeling his family have more money than he lets on and his uncle sounds very wealthy.
What’s interesting in the book is how things are so different, yet the same. His talk of fashion shows isn’t far off of the circus today. But, fashion has changed and that breathless wait for the next creation from a chosen designer doesn’t ring true anymore. We look, yes, but they no longer have the power with people following sheep-like.
For many, at this time, fashion is a vehicle for social standing, climbing and showing their wealth and his eyerolling at those who just use clothes for these purposes isn’t disguised. He wants them to just enjoy it for what it is, but, you can only do this if you understand fashion, and very few people truly do.
This is the Mad Men New York of parties in hotel ballrooms, social gatherings and peacocking. This is America at its most formal, yet still shows how conservative they are and yet with all the money. They would never buy anything that original or daring and that still rings true today.
This is a lite and inspiring read for anybody who gets excited about vintage fashion, women with cinched in waists and full skirts, Parisian fashion salons of the 1950s and bouji New York beach resorts."
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