A Fashionable Memoir
I broke my New Year's resolution when buying Fashion Climbing: A New York Life, Bill Cunningham’s memoir, in late January of this year. My 2020 resolution was not to buy another book until I had read all the books that were patiently waiting for me on my overcrowded bookshelf (well, actually the pile of books underneath my bedside table). In any case three weeks is quite good going for me and any kind of resolution, besides who could resist that cover, a black and white photograph of a young Bill admiring an adorned model.
Bill was a fashion icon, who became more widely known through the recent Bill Cunningham New York documentary. When he died in 2016, the aforementioned memoir was found amongst his possessions - a memoir he had written about his experiences as a milliner and his early days as a fashion reporter throughout the 1950s & 60s. Known for his relentless perfectionism, he never submitted the book to print, which is outrageous as the writing couldn’t be more engaging, and thus it was only recently printed in 2018.
The story is a glittering and charming tale of his pursuit of a fashionable life. He got his start by moving from his native Boston to New York, when he was just a tender 19 years old, living with an uncle in the city. He did begin his career then, but this was swiftly followed by his time spent in stationed in France as a soldier during the Korean war, after which he returned to the US with a new love of Parisian couture!
Bill Cunningham in the early days of William J.
Under his own label, William J, millinery was Bill’s official entree to a fashionable life and career. Making hats for famous clients, the fashion forward and the kooky elite - he was known for designing hats with a wild and surrealist touch. He then changed lanes in 1962 and started working as a fashion reporter, initially, and most notably, for rag-trade bible Women’s Wear Daily. His more recent incarnation was as a street and society photographer for The New York Times, where he captured the outfits and movements of the genuinely stylish on the streets of Manhattan.
Bill lived in Carnegie Hall for many years. When it opened up its rooms of residence it became home to many of the 20th century’s most influential artists, such as Marlon Brando and Lee Strasburg. When his memoir was written Bill was still living there, however one of the most painful things about the docu-film, Bill Cunningham New York, is watching an elderly Bill look around the city for a new apartment, as he and the other last remaining tenants were being forced out of the iconic building.
Many of his own obstacles and concerns with the industry, which he shares constantly throughout the book, still seem so relevant. He talks of struggling with shop rents, trying to gain attention amidst an oversaturated fashion week (which he manages with much success) and convincing customers of his weird and wonderful designs. Many fashion designer friends I have certainly experience that same list of issues today, making the memoir more modern than you’d think.
Bill in his later years, photographing a hot-pink poodle!
Apart from his impressive CV, a tale of his that I was particularly struck by was his enthusiasm about a greyhound bus tour he’d taken around the United States. It was here he wrote that America’s most stylish women weren’t necessarily those holding positions of power at magazines in Manhattan, but instead women from all walks of life who resided all over the country. He cites many well-dressed women from other significant cities, such as Chicago and Dallas, as being who he viewed as the truly fabulous. Ladies who were the actual consumers of fashion and really knew how to dress, thus proving that style is innate.
It’s this sentiment that I share. Controversial as it is, I can't really think of any current fashion editors, that I know of, who’s personal style I’m totally inspired by - though that’s not to say I don’t want to emulate some of their visions portrayed in their fashion shoots. But it’s true, that the world’s real fashion icons live all over, not necessarily where you would expect, and not always in glossy magazine offices. Beyond that, the thought of Bill Cunningham on a greyhound bus, touring his country in his youth, inspires me in the sense that the reality of travel for the next few years seems purely domestic. Suddenly I want to book a bus trip to Darwin, post lockdown, to go and spy some true fashionistas up North - though something tells me that I am much more likely to see a crocodile in the wild that way, rather than the crocodile skin handbags Bill might have seen in midcentury, middle-America.
You can buy the book here.