‘Fashion Climbing’ by Bill Cunningham
Author: Steve Susoyev
September 16, 2018
In an era when breathless tell-all memoirs are rushed to press, how refreshing to read a somewhat discreet memoir whose existence the author revealed only after the end of his fabulously colorful life. Even now he does not tell all, but he tells enough to make us want to know more—a neat trick for someone who lived as publicly as Bill Cunningham did.
“We all dress for Bill,” Vogue’s Anna Wintour often said during Cunningham’s life. He was a fashionista long before we had such a word: from the age of 12, in 1941, he was creating hats from silk cabbage roses and yards of ribbon, and not too many years later opened a hat boutique in Manhattan. He became a world-renowned fashion photographer and New York Times columnist. Thanks to what he called his “simply honest” fashion-show reviews, he sometimes was also a dis-invited guest at openings around the world. “I’m not interested in celebrities and their free dresses,” he said in an interview, with a characteristic hearty chuckle. “I’m interested in clothes.”
Fashion Climbing is both refreshing and surprising. For any of us who don’t think much about fashion, the book is a revelation. “You wanted to aid Bill in his quest for exceptional surfaces,” New Yorker critic Hilton Als writes in his preface to the memoir, “to be beautifully dressed and interesting for him, because of the deep pleasure it gave him to notice something he had never seen before.” Throughout the narrative, we see this fascination with innovation borne out: Cunningham reveled in originality, both in his own work and in the style of those around him, including strangers on the street. He disdained copycat designers, particularly those who ridiculed his own outrageous ideas and later cashed in on imitations, but also those who fell into a risk-averse rut, producing minor annual variations on sure-fire, profitable but predictable themes.
“As a little boy,” Als writes, “he loved fashion more than he longed for anything as unimaginative as social acceptance.” That love got off to a troubled start. In the book’s opening paragraph, Cunningham describes his mother’s reaction—“she beat the hell out of me”—when she encountered him at age four, wearing his sister’s prettiest dress, a pink organdy number he would remember for the rest of his life. His strict Catholic family resolved then to shield him from any artistic influences. Easy to do, he says, in their conservative Boston suburb. The one truly beautiful thing in the house, he claims, was his mother’s wedding gown, “covered with embroidery and pearls and tiny satin roses.”
His family disapproved of fashion in general, and certainly as a career path for a young man. In the manuscript he included a sketch of himself climbing a ladder, with the caption in his mother’s voice: “What will the neighbors say?” Later, Cunningham adopted the brand “William J.”—in order, he writes, to save his family the shame of admitting that their son, their brother, was a hat designer.
In the award-winning 2010 documentary film Bill Cunningham New York, released the year he turned 80, he discussed “the wider world that perceives fashion as sometimes a frivolity that should be done away with” in the face of social upheavals. “The point is that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” After this, viewers hear the good-natured, signature chuckle.
Cunningham lived a fairytale life, inhabiting for several years a studio with 16-foot ceilings high in the Carnegie Hall tower. The place was jammed with filing cabinets that barely accommodated his photographs and papers. He was sometimes broke but never poor, and writes cheerfully of lean times when he lived on three spoonfuls of Ovaltine a day, and was thrilled to find a deli that sold five-cent frankfurters. The reader wonders, “Was he lonely?” though he claims never to have experienced loneliness. The book and the documentary present Bill Cunningham as a man with 10,000 friends but no one special friend. He writes of feeling depressed and curing his depression by grabbing his camera and looking for interestingly put-together people, photographing and talking with them.
During childhood, Cunningham once said, “I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.” His first incursion into professional fashion was designing and hand-fashioning custom hats made from any materials he could scavenge. At 19, after two months on scholarship at Harvard, he dropped out and headed to New York, where he studied design and began selling his one-of-a-kind chapeaus on the street. A stint in the Army during the Korean War threatened to interrupt his fashion career, but he found himself stationed in France, where his first pilgrimage was to the Paris windows of Schiaparelli and Dior. Always an opportunist, he convinced his commanding officer that he should be allowed to conduct tours for his comrades, which opened doors from Paris to Morocco.
At age 25, again a civilian, he opened his first hat shop in a Manhattan brownstone whose glory had faded. “My head was just bursting with ideas to remodel,” he writes, giving us a taste of his enthusiasm for design of any kind. From this venue he began selling his originals to major luxury stores, including a hat made of scouring pads stretched over a gold lamé helmet from which large feathers exploded. Eight years later, in the early 1960s, he opened a high-style hat shop in the Carnegie Hall building.
Hilton Als writes of Cunningham’s “glorious toothy smile,” a smile that brightens many pages of this book. “Beloved” is not a word we tend to associate with celebrities of the fashion world, but Cunningham seems to have earned the sobriquet. One of the delights of reading the advance uncorrected proof provided to critics is that none of the book’s many photographs is accompanied by a caption. Even without captions, in thumbing through the book I have had no trouble identifying Bill Cunningham: he is the gangly laughing teenager, the bemused young man ice-skating in what looks like a knee-length raccoon coat, the grinning octogenarian wielding a Nikon: the guy in many of the photos who looks absolutely thrilled with whatever is going on around him. He displays no suggestion of the disengaged gaze we are accustomed to seeing on the faces of models and camera-conscious celebrities. Indeed, when Cunningham aimed his camera, the elegant people he photographed for the New York Times style pages came to life as they did for no one else. Those who failed to yield to his charm he referred to as the “super elegant women who never smile—they seem to take themselves too seriously.”
Cunningham was beloved by queer fashionistas the world over; I imagine many readers will come to this text with a set of long pondered questions: “Is Cunningham gay? Does he come out in this memoir?” Never married and widely rumored to be gay, Bill Cunningham left an enormous archive when he died in 2016, at 87. Among tens of thousands of photographs and drawers jammed with papers, his niece found the neatly typed and carefully edited manuscript for this, his memoir. When the existence of the book first became known, more rumors flew: At last, the evasive Bill Cunningham has spilled the dish on himself and many others in the industry best known for backstabbing!
Not so fast, you rumor-mongers. Cunningham certainly reveals plenty of scandalous behavior, most involving the one sin he considered unpardonable: a lack of originality. But he took any personal sexual secrets, his own or anyone else’s, with him beyond the grave. Lambda Literary, and your critic here, are happy to assume that Cunningham was “queer” in some sense, generally or specifically, because he was exuberant, colorful, and original. But he spills no beans in these pages. Some people who knew him well believe that he was asexual.
This is not only a story about wealthy and powerful people who can pay designers to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces of haute couture. Cunningham followed people around New York who caught his eye, photographing their original, self-created styles as they vogued for him. “The best fashion show,” he said in the documentary, “is definitely on the street.” And he writes lovingly of the ninety-year-old Mrs. Lily Tiffany, an impoverished woman who played the accordion on the street for donations outside Carnegie Hall. He celebrates her love of dogs and her request for help carrying bags of pennies to the bank in order to pay the rent. He calls old Mrs. Tiffany “one of those marvelous eccentric treasures that make New York the most super place in the world.” He could have been describing himself.
Cunningham was a feminist at an important time between the 20th century’s great feminist movements. “Women are equal to men,” he said in Bill Cunningham New York. “The age of decorating women as objects of men’s success? Oh, forget it, that’s ancient history.”
Cunningham may have been beloved, but not by everyone. He earned his dis-invitations with catty columns on fashion-world politics and intrigue. The gathered celebrities at Christian Dior’s new collection looked “like Filene’s Basement on Dollar Day… The forty or more beaded dresses held no sparkle for me.”
Cunningham does grind an axe, gently and artfully, returning often to a theme: I did it first, and the buyers for the major stores laughed. Then Paris copied my designs and everyone started ordering mine. I got the last laugh. Of the many examples pictured in the book, this fashion-wary critic most loves the hats spouting geysers of feathers.
Fashion Climbing contains many whimsical stories, the best involving various trickeries. Cunningham’s friend Mary appeared at the season opening of the Metropolitan Opera wearing a formal gown made from a $7 pearl-gray moiré shower curtain, and was featured on the cover of the next morning’s Women’s Wear Daily. Cunningham’s notoriously terrible spelling won him a playful award from his editors at the Boston Herald: a gold medal that he wore on a ribbon as a self-deprecating joke. Again going for the last laugh, he reports that when he wears the medal to high-society parties, New York’s social climbers don’t bother to read the inscription and “get all impressed and think it’s some kind of royal ancestry.” With the whimsy, we learn some hard fundamentals of style: “So many fashions look effective in stiff photographs, but the second they begin to move you really see the difference between a good dress and a cheap one.”
Bill Cunningham understood social climbers and capitalized on their vulnerabilities. He reveals, “Many women who never buy a hat any other time of the year will think nothing of spending a hundred dollars on a hat for Easter Sunday. I had a large crowd of those one-hat-a-year ladies. I think the motivation was always the hope of getting themselves into the newspapers.”
Cunningham’s central message seems to be that an artist is better off retaining integrity and living on Ovaltine. “Money is cheap. Freedom is expensive,” he bluntly tells us. Artists, he implies, sell out in order to climb a meaningless ladder. “Thank God I didn’t care about money. I just wanted to create the most trend-setting hats.”
Eight hours after he learned of Cunningham’s death, Hilton Als sat down to write a loving essay, “Bill Cunningham Saw Us All,” which appeared in the New Yorker at once as an obituary and a personal testament. The two men were friends, and Cunningham sometimes called Als “chile”—“an endearment that was familiar to me and cheered me: that ‘chile’ grew out of his understanding of, and identification with, black culture—a world where black gay men imitated all those loved aunties and mothers who called you ‘chile,’ as a way of letting you know you were theirs, somebody’s child.” One could not think of a more appropriate person to write the preface of this memoir. The closest we get to any hint of Cunningham’s sexual orientation comes in Als’s observation of his friend’s affection for the black photographer Darryl Turner, in “occasions filled with pride because Cunningham admired Darryl especially, and his eyes made Darryl feel seen, which is one way to love someone.”
By Bill Cunningham
Paperback, 9780525558705, 256 pp.