Fashion Climbing

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Fashion Climbing
256 pages; Penguin Press
I knew Bill Cunningham only in his latter-day incarnation, as a bike-riding, Nikon-wielding observer of Manhattan's sartorial spectacle for The New York Times. (I was a recurrent subject for over 25 years.) But even readers unfamiliar with the ubiquitous lensman, who died in 2016, will find the posthumously published memoir of his earlier years, Fashion Climbing (Penguin Press), irresistible. In effervescent, conversational prose, the grand seigneur of street-style photographers transports us to an era when masquerade balls were routine affairs in New York and first nights at the opera were more highly anticipated fashion occasions than the Academy Awards® red carpet.

Beginning when he was just 4, Cunningham's fascination with his sister's dresses alarmed his Irish Catholic parents, who over time tried to thwart their son's dream of becoming a milliner. Undeterred, the teenage Cunningham takes an after-school job as a stock boy at the Boston department store Jordan Marsh. From there he advances to Bonwit Teller. His rapture over his proximity to exquisite creations of the day ("my head was in a swivel of excitement as I crawled around the gorgeous clothes") mingles with outrage when he learns that wealthy Jewish customers have been banned from the emporium's opening.

Even as he finds his place in the fashion world—he establishes a hat shop in New York in 1949—he continues to be simultaneously repelled and enchanted by those who inhabit it. He demonizes the copycats who knock off his and other designers' work and vilifies the rich deadbeats who dodge his bills. But he reveres the paying clients who wear his daring confections, especially one eccentric dowager who buys a hat nearly every day for months and houses her acquisitions in their own hotel room.

Cunningham, in fact, often seems to transfer his family's fervid religiosity to fashion. Sacrificing his own well-being at its altar, he at times survived on a ration of three tablespoons of Ovaltine a day, resoled his worn-out shoes with cardboard, and generally lived like a monk. Ultimately, feminine adornments were his sacred calling, requiring, he devoutly believed, an "inner mystical revelation."
— Amy Fine Collins