“Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs” by Bill Cunningham— An Untold Story Until Now

Cunningham, Bill. “Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs”, Penguin, 2018.

An Untold Story Until Now

Amos Lassen

Bill Cunningham loved New York City and saw it as a land of freedom, glamour, and, above all, style. He grew up an Irish suburb of Boston and spent his evenings after school in the city’s boutiques. He dreamed of a life dedicated to fashion with which his family did not agree and saw as a source of shame. He dropped out of Harvard and had to fight to pursue fashion.

Arriving in New York City, he loved watching people. He spent his nights at opera openings and gatecrashed extravagant balls, where he paid attention to what people wore. He became famous as a photographer for The New York Times. Two style mavens took Bill under their wing and his creativity thrived and he made a name for himself as a designer. He adopted an alias, alias William J.–because designing under his family’s name would have been a disgrace to his parents. Bill became one of the era’s most outlandish and celebrated hat designers, catering to movie stars, heiresses, and artists alike. His self-appointed mission was to bring happiness to the world by making women an inspiration to themselves and everyone who saw them.

This is the story of a young man striving to be the person he was born to be: a true original. Although he was one of the city’s most recognized figures, Bill was also one of its most guarded. Before he died, his memoir was polished, neatly typewritten, and safely stored away. He held off on sharing it–and himself–until his passing. Cunningham was an enigma flying down Fifth Avenue on his bicycle, documenting New York City.

“Fashion Climbing” is a record of Bill’s early years that was found  after among his papers  he died in 2016. The backdrop is postwar retail, high society and fashion. Cunningham’s, unpretentious voice guides the reader through the postwar period of Manhattan glamour. Having got the measure of retail, he starts a millinery business using the name William J. (The omission of the last name was an attempt to avoid the complaints of his conventional family.) During this period, Cunningham concocts surreal and demented costumes for himself and his friends. The demise of hats leads to a career in fashion reporting. The book concludes with two rip-roaringly opinionated essays: “On Society” and “On Taste.”

Cunningham’s world is the glamorous world of 20th-century fashion Bill Cunningham was probably known for his candid shots of fashion in the New York Times, more than any other part of his art. His work as a self-taught photographer who changed the way the Times looked at fashion.

His memoir gives us the facts, and a little bit about his life. However, most of it is wrapped up in his business life, and his personal life is not realty discussed. He learned his craft by observing and doing. He was an individual, and he is best known as one of those treasured figures of New York. The book is not as open and as personal as other memoirs, but it is a fun read.

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