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."
Read more ChicGeek Fashion Book Reviews here
Oliver Brown, owner, Kristian Robson, offers TheChicGeek some expert advice on buying and wearing a top hat
CG - What should you look for in a top hat?
KR - Black antique silk top hats are considered the height of beauty and elegance because of their impressive shine, shape and lightness, which is second to none. The modern versions, such as a fur felt in black and grey are bulkier than the antique style, though they do last very well. The 'Ascot Top Hat' and its taller counterpart the 'Hetherington Ascot Top Hat' are the closest alternative to an original silk top hat, but finished with ‘melusine’ fabric, they don't have the same impressive shine, look and lightness as an antique silk top hat.
Antique silk top hats are largely found in black, but can also be brown or grey which is often referred to as ‘white’ even though they are in fact grey. Whilst black is sometimes thought of as more formal, any colour can be worn to finish a morning suit or tails, and worn to all occasions.
If you’re looking for Royal Ascot top hats and have access to the Royal Enclosure, the dress code requires gentlemen to wear black or grey top hats without adornments such as coloured ribbons. The dress code is less restrictive within the Queen Anne and Windsor enclosures, however you’re welcome to adhere to the Royal Enclosure dress codes if you so wish.
CG- What’s the best way to get your correct size?
KR - We would always recommend a fitting with a top hat specialist. It’s very important to get the fit perfect so that the hat is secure enough that it’s not going to move or fall off, but not too tight that it leaves a mark when you take it off. The top hat should sit flat on your hear, not titled forward or backwards and sit ½ an inch above the ear.
CG - Is there any advice on proportions/height of the hat for the wearer?
KR - The shape and height of antique silk top hats evolved somewhat over the years, with the crowns gradually becoming taller in height and the brims narrower. The most common shape of antique silk top hats is the ‘bell-shape’ which has slightly curved sides, but there are also examples such as the ‘stove-pipe’ which has straight sides and is particularly tall. The shape you opt for is a personal choice, for example if you have a smaller head you may want to opt for a crown that’s lower in height to keep everything in proportion.
CG - Anything else in regards to style tips, maintenance etc.?
KR - The top hat must sit flat on your head, not tilted forwards or backwards.
To clean your hat, any dust on an antique or modern top hat can removed by lightly brushing it with a pure bristle brush; when dusting an antique silk top hat it’s important to brush in the direction of the nap to keep it smooth. You can treat it with steam if needed or bring it into the shop to have it cleaned.
Antique silk top hats were designed to be buffed and this will need to be carried out from time to time to keep their polished appearance. Using a velvet pad, sweep over the surface in the direction of the nap a few times until the hat’s deep, glossy shine is reinstated.
If you need to dry your top hat, for example because you were caught in the rain, it’s important you let the hat dry in a naturally warm and airy environment - never over direct heat such as a radiator which could distort the shape of the hat.
With a view to storage, we recommend you keep your top hat in a box, away from moths, and cover the whole hat in silk to protect it. The hat should fit comfortably in the bucket or box so it doesn’t move around too much during transportation, but must also be tall enough so the edges of the hat do not rub and cause wear to the crown.
It was Prince who once sang about a raspberry beret and while he was admiring the wearer, going in through the out door, this season he should be one sporting himself.
Left - Gucci catwalk AW15
Seen on the catwalk at Gucci, it’s the beret’s simplicity that really makes it appealing for the cold weather season.
Left - Gucci - £160
A stylish alternative to the beanie or bobble hat, here are a few suggestions, but they can be picked up, relatively cheaply, on eBay and Amazon.
From the French word béret, it is a simple flat woollen cap traditionally worn by peasants. It was adopted by revolutionaries and artists and adds that romantic feeling to any look. Just remember, you want to look studious not like a New York Guardian Angel!
Left - Picasso
Above- Lock & Co - Basque Beret - £85
Below - Che Guevara