Book Review: Bill Cunningham's Fashion Climbing

The late fashion snapper Bill Cunningham left nothing if not good will with his passing. Long before his death, the originator of street style photography was already a wraith in a blue work coat, haunting a few preferred corners of Manhattan to touch, through his camera lens, the favored of his eyes, elevating them as if he really was some supernatural being to the pages of The New York Times. His spritely or sprightly touch seemed even more magical in that his eye and philosophy – contrary to those of the many who followed him – were waspishly anti-commercial.  He favored those who dressed for themselves, following their own tastes and spending their own money.  

Fashion ClimbingCunningham’s posthumously published memoir, shows that Cunningham had crafted that philosophy and honed his sharp views many decades before becoming the sunny, silent sprite of the NYT.  In fact, a reader expecting to learn more about Cunningham’s experience as the camera-toting street style photographer will be left wondering and waiting as the pages turn all the way to the end.  Instead, Fashion Climbing is the origin story of Cunningham the groundbreaking style photojournalist, setting out the traumas, deeply rooted motivations, unusually helpful character traits and formative influences – both mentors and early nemeses – that formed the Cunningham today’s pop culture remembers and informed his eye and pen. While this origin story, in its way, is as eventful as today’s portentous cinematic comic book adaptations, I hope Zach Snyder won’t be directing.

Fashion Climbing opens with a vividly described formative cataclysm that, like those in comic book movies, involves the explosive combination of all those elements. Young Bill’s first memory, wearing his sister’s dress because he was driven to find something of beauty and flamboyant splendor, followed by his mother’s violent punishment for such a transgressive act in a post-World War II middle-class Boston Catholic household, each last word a brutal conformist clobber.  What follows are young Bill’s continued transgressions against norms of gender conformity, of drabness, of class ambition: childhood jobs whose earnings he channels into buying clothes for his mother and sister, the only ways to introduce beauty, even glamor, into the house. Jobs at Boston department store Jordan Marsh and New York interloper Bonwit Teller, where he thrived so much that Bonwit’s actually gave him a scholarship to Harvard University (imagine the days when an employer would pay for an employee’s Ivy League liberal arts degree…).  

Dropping out of Harvard, Cunningham made his way to New York, where he did not yet become the flitting photographer the reader is expecting to see emerge at any moment from these pages, but instead devoted himself to… millinery.  The word is Cunningham’s, not mine; its meaning, women’s hatmaking, as forgotten as that craft itself.  His creative talents, his inspirations, nay, urges for glamor and theatricality flowered, festooned, cascaded in sculptural, even architectural headgear madness, rendered out of found items, remainder cloth, and other often humble materials.  Madcap adventures, no pun intended, followed the young designer that do indeed recall the parties and tenants of the building in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as Hilton Als notes in his introduction to this book.  Cunningham encounters a New York demimonde of chancers and pretenders, of shameless clothing industry pirates who would place small orders simply to steal all his ideas, and of hidden, uninhibited splendors and debauchery behind doors closed to all but an entitled upper class… and to a resourceful Boston boy and his beautiful (platonic?) “girlfriends” who would crash them, not for sordid sex, but for the opportunity to dress up in the most outlandish costumes and to observe the small number of people who shopped and dressed only for themselves…

An observer almost like a thief, Cunningham reminisces that he knew dozens of illicit ways into certain elegant venues he’d never entered through the front door, all for the sake of viewing others in their outfits, often, in his words, from behind a curtain.  Drafted during the Korean War, he somehow finds himself assigned to the French backwoods, where the same resourceful pluck he used to finagle his way into New York venues serves to organize tours all over Europe with his fellow GIs, including and especially to Paris. Paris was the center of couture, in Cunningham’s view because it alone among London, New York or Los Angeles had the craftspeople who could devote time and skill to the many, many individual tasks and trades involved in haute couture.  

Today, as I’ve learned and written, that may still be the case in Paris, but it’s certainly not easy to find.  The old customers who maintained the enormously complicated, enormously expensive craft industry of haute couture are gone, as are the customers who had kept millinery barely going along in Cunningham’s era.  He notes he saw the business die by 1960.  That step, too, still does not bring us Cunningham the iconic photographer.  Instead, Fashion Climbing describes Bill’s recruitment to fashion writer for Women’s Wear Daily, among others, and provides several of his contemporary writeups from the couture shows of Chanel, Molyneux, Balenciaga, Galanos and others. Cunningham punctuates each with what is ferocious, career-threatening anti-commerciality for the fashion press: he refuses to follow the accepted conventional wisdom about the reigning couturiers du jour, threatening his publications’ access to those designers’ shows and the lucrative advertising buys those labels and their backers and associates were responsible for.  Going further, he criticizes acidly the airs of the fashion press itself, the folk who dictate to the rest of the world what to wear in every situation while horribly dressed and horribly unprepared themselves.  

Fashion Climbing ends without Bill ever shouldering his famous bleu de travail to haunt Fifth Avenue.  However, like the best origin stories, it shows us the organic and natural assembly of the qualities and conditions that create an icon: the love of beauty for its own sake, not for what it supposedly signals about power, wealth, or sex; the stubborn sincerity to pursue the expression of that beauty and criticize its absence; the remarkable persistence even in the face of starvation (and the resourcefulness to survive those deprivations); the unique eye for the exotic and the whimsical that make beauty personal; and perhaps most amazingly, a sunniness that never seemed to fade or set. 

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