Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham

38820052I’m not a fashionista by any stretch but I like me a good fashion documentary.  The September Issue gave me a grounding in this topsy turvy world, after which I gravitated to Bill Cunningham New York.  Cunningham was a private person, almost to the point of being a loner, so when I saw his posthumous memoir would be published the first week of September (natch) I snapped it up.

I knew Cunningham as a fashion photographer for the New York Times who did lovely On the Street videos. Treat yourself to a few here, here, and here – I dare you to watch without smiling.  But before he picked up a camera he was a Boston boy who loved clothes, was drafted into the Army, and became a milliner upon his return.  This memoir covers this early period of his life, so if you’re looking for info on his photography or modern day notables like Anna Wintour you will be disappointed.

Cunningham starts with his childhood, growing up as part of an Irish Catholic family that did not approve of his playing dress up in his sister’s clothes.  In fact, his family approved of little that he did, from dropping out of Harvard and moving to New York to becoming a hat designer.  Reading between the lines you can infer the pain that must have caused but Cunningham rarely discusses his inner life.  We get all the action instead – working as a stock boy in Boston department stores, getting a lucky posting in France during the Korean War, and moving to New York and feasting his eyes on fashion.

The account appears to be written around 1970 and I had to keep reminding myself that.  Modern me bristled at women designers being called “girls”.  He crashed party after party to look at the clothes the women were wearing, and I had to tell myself that 60 years ago that was more of a social faux pas than a criminal one.

Cunningham’s writing is down to earth, and in the book he says kitchen-table style is preferable to sending the reader to the dictionary.  As a result the tone is almost conversational and kept drawing me back to the page.

You will find many insights into his thinking here, such as why he never accepted anything while working, not even a glass of water.  As the narrative catches up to the time of writing the telling slows down, going over each collection of hats, each year in the fashion world.  While I would have liked more info about his early life I get the feeling that he only shared what he wanted to, and I respect that.

I enjoyed the read but if you’ve never heard of Cunningham this is probably not the place to start. First watch Bill Cunningham New York, become smitten, then read this memoir to fill in the gaps.

Thanks to Penguin Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.