18 Brilliant Books for Fall
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."