The memoir that photographer Bill Cunningham left behind — edited, typed and with a suggested title — offers a glimpse into the fashion world of the 1950s, when the industry was endowed with outsize importance in the lives of women and its rules were sacrosanct. Fashion was a kind of religion – or perhaps a cult — filled with committed converts and lifelong true believers, as well as agnostics who just couldn’t break free of its hold. Depending on the moment and the circumstances, Cunningham fell into all three tribes.
“Fashion Climbing” is a narrow slice of Cunningham’s life story, from his childhood in a “middle-class Catholic home in a lace-curtain Irish suburb of Boston,” through his time as a successful milliner in New York, until he takes his first steps into journalism at Women’s Wear Daily. It is not a look at his career as a photographer for the New York Times, when he was on the hunt for the telling fashion detail. (It was Cunningham, the social anthropologist, who gave me permission to publish a selection of his photographs in my book “The Battle of Versailles.”) Instead, “Fashion Climbing” is about his life as William J., the fashion-obsessed young man who ditched his last name so as not to embarrass his strait-laced family with his artsy tendencies.
Because the book was found after Cunningham’s death in 2016, it’s unclear when he finished it. The language, full of phrases such as “stitching up a storm” and “a dope like me,” suggests that it was written in a pre-Internet age, but to the end, Cunningham always sounded like a man whose turns of phrase were firmly rooted in black-and-white Hollywood-ese.
It’s not so much the language that places his memoir in time, but rather its tenor. It’s upbeat and chirpy — free of today’s irony and angst-riddled navel-gazing. Everything works out, and even when it does not, other doors open. Serendipity to the rescue.
The 21st-century forces that have transformed the fashion industry would probably have brought out more of Cunningham’s bite. And to be sure, his teeth could be sharp.
“Like any business, there are the small group of lovely, well-mannered customers who make life worth living. Unfortunately, 65 percent of the women buying high fashion act like star-spangled bitches, never satisfied, and full of conniving tricks to get the price as low as possible, demanding the best quality and three times more service.”
Cunningham’s memoir is, to use one of his favorite words, a marvelous glimpse into the fashion world as New York was coming into its own. Cunningham exudes the delighted mischievousness of a child as he describes sneaking into galas for the sole purpose of admiring the ladies. He dissects their style the way an art student might settle in at a museum to study the masters. He learns about garment construction by working retail and turning the clothes inside out. And when he launches his business, he persuades landlords and investors to take a chance on him by dint of boyish charm.
Or at least that’s the story Cunningham tells. He seems a bit of an unreliable narrator — unreliable because of sheer stubborn cheerfulness.
It’s hard to believe that anyone had as lovely a time as Cunningham did when he was in the Army, stationed in France during the Korean War. He adorned his helmet with flowers; he hid fashion magazines in his locker.
“And if you don’t think that caused a lot of scandal! But after a while, most of the fellows wanted to peruse the fashion magazines, just to look at the beautiful girls. I remember one weekend when I was running around Paris with Stella Daufray — one of the most gorgeous models in all Paris. . . . The fellows were dumbfounded. They couldn’t understand how a dope like me could have this fabulous gal, when they’d been sitting around all weekend without a chance for a date.”
Ultimately, Cunningham spent much of the war giving hat-making lessons to the wives of officers.
As a milliner in New York, he raves about the young and stylish; he can barely stomach the society matrons, even though they are the customers who give him a measure of financial stability.
He indulges his creativity with over-the-top locations for his hat shows, delights in creating a near stampede of guests for one of his presentations and complains when the press fails to find his work as wildly fabulous as he believes it to be.
Eventually, women simply stop wearing hats, and Cunningham closes his business.
From the beginning, he was an astute observer of the social ecosystem. Amid the wealthy ladies, the snobbery and hierarchies, he laments the way in which fashion, like so much of the culture, can be used to demean, ostracize and otherwise devalue people.
“Poor fashion is the innocent victim of deep-rooted hatreds. My shop was always open to everyone. Jet and Ebony, in particular, were so generous to my work, turning over lots of valuable space. For many years, I gave hat shows in Harlem, and they were some of the most exciting ever given; the audience truly appreciated creative ideas. If I were to open a shop again, I’d sure as hell consider Harlem.”
“Fashion Climbing” ends just as Cunningham has signed on as a columnist at Women’s Wear Daily. He is an accidental journalist, persuaded to write for the trade journal by its publisher, the late John Fairchild. Cunningham describes his spelling as atrocious, and that may be true, but he brings skepticism, honesty and passion to his work.
Cunningham writes with forthright simplicity, but he was a complex man. He hates being judged, but in his memoir, he can be supremely judgmental. He was profoundly private, and anyone who reaches for his memoir hoping that it will offer insight into his personal life will be disappointed. A reader learns something about Cunningham’s relationship with fashion, but not very much about Cunningham himself. He does not let the reader into his home, his heart or his head. Did he fall in love? What kept him up at night? Was fashion his greatest joy? For this fashion climber, what, exactly, defined the summit?
Cunningham ends with a short treatise on taste. He makes an argument for the rigors of fashion, for the bothersome work of caring about how one looks. He is not diplomatic; he offers no safe space. “It’s a ridiculous belief that money brings taste; it definitely doesn’t. As a matter of fact, it often merely allows one to enjoy bad taste with louder vulgarity.”
“Fashion Climbing” is a letter from another era. It can be both charming and anachronistic. Fizzy and flimsy. Cunningham lived through extraordinary times. He paints them in vivid detail. He doesn’t dig far below the surface. But downward is not where Cunningham ever cast his gaze.
Robin Givhan is the fashion critic for The Washington Post.
By Bill Cunningham. 256 pp. $27.