Why Bill Cunningham was a rare creature in fashion

by Linda Herrick / 19 March, 2019
Bill Cunningham in his signature blue worker’s jacket. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Cunningham in his signature blue worker’s jacket. Photo/Getty Images

Affable fashionista Bill Cunningham takes readers behind the scenes in the world of haute couture.

Fashion mavens adored the 2010 film on New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, showcasing his indefatigable, sunny persona as he cycled around the city snapping street style.

In an industry dominated by stuck-up practitioners, his optimism and infectious smile couldn’t help but charm. He was also a rare creature who focused on people for what they wore, not who they were.

The documentary Bill Cunningham New York didn’t cover his earlier life, but after his death two years ago, at the age of 87, a manuscript was discovered in his modest apartment.

 

Fashion Climbing: A New York Life covers the years he worked in fashion before he started his photography career in the late 70s. As you would hope, it’s sharp, perceptive and sparkling with wit.

It opens with four-year-old Bill getting the daylights walloped out of him by his mother after she discovered him wearing his older sister’s dress.

His childhood, in suburban Boston, was drab, with his parents determined to block their son from any form of artistic expression, an attitude he condemns strongly.

Regardless, he searched for glamour anywhere he could find it, initially at church, where the women dressed in their best outfits, which were, in hindsight, pretty dreary.

Analysing women’s clothes became a lifetime preoccupation for Cunningham. So it was a red-flag day when the fashion department store Bonwit Teller opened a Boston branch and hired the teenager as a stock boy. “I thought I’d die of happiness!” he writes.

It was still Boston, though. When Bonwit sent him to New York for a brief training programme, he took to the city “like a star shooting through the heavens”. He quickly returned, for good, but was later fired for making hats and selling them on the side. He became an independent, opening a hat-making business in 1948 called “William J” to spare his parents’ blushes.

Cunningham’s roller-coaster decade of hat making was interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War. Improbably, he assumed he’d be posted to France – and he was, where he ran millinery classes for officers’ wives and revelled in the arts.

On his return to New York in 1954, his profile rose, attracting clients such as actress Leslie Caron (“best not to meet famous people”) and Jackie Kennedy.

Cunningham sprinkles lots of delicious gossip throughout the book, but he also notes some ugly elements, such as the anti-Semitic talk that filled his New York salon. “All this damned side-of-the-mouth talk has made me ashamed of what high fashion is used for.”

In 1960, he closed the business and began reporting for Women’s Wear Daily, with the strict proviso he could be totally honest. His behind-the-scenes reporting of the frantic European fashion circuit, involving figures such as Coco Chanel and Cristóbal Balenciaga, are comedy gold.

Fashion Climbing leaves you in no doubt that Cunningham’s life was, as he frequently put it, “a hoot”. Against the odds, his creative freedom triumphed over the constraints of conservatism.

FASHION CLIMBING: A New York Life, by Bill Cunningham (Chatto & Windus, $40)

This article was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners
105015 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The former major reuniting service medals with the…

by Fiona Terry

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

Read more
PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of social media for terrorism
104952 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Politics

PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of soc…

by Noted

A meeting aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

Read more
Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium
104942 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story…

by James Robins

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

Read more
What to watch on TV this Anzac Day
104749 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Television

What to watch on TV this Anzac Day

by Fiona Rae

Māori TV once again devotes the day to Anzac programming, including a live broadcast from Gallipoli.

Read more
Twist in the tale: Why Margaret Mahy changed the end of her classic debut
104490 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Books

Twist in the tale: Why Margaret Mahy changed the e…

by Sally Blundell

The two different endings of the beloved A Lion in the Meadow still provoke debate. So which is better, the 1969 original or the later, kinder one?

Read more
Mapping the second brain: The latest science on the effect of your gut bacteria
104884 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Health

Mapping the second brain: The latest science on th…

by Donna Chisholm

Most of us have heard the five-plus-a-day message for fruit and vegetables. But new research into gut health suggests that advice may need tweaking.

Read more
How a mother and daughter changed their diet to manage irritable bowel syndrome
104896 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How a mother and daughter changed their diet to ma…

by Donna Chisholm

A mother and daughter with irritable bowel syndrome say that diet was the missing ingredient in controlling the condition.

Read more
Lack of humility is Simon Bridges' fatal flaw
104881 2019-04-23 00:00:00Z Politics

Lack of humility is Simon Bridges' fatal flaw

by Graham Adams

After low polling and even louder caucus rumblings, you’d expect to see at least a flicker of fear in the eyes of someone threatened with an axe.

Read more