To have your outfit snapped by New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham in Union Square or traipsing down Park Avenue was a particular rite of passage — the New York fashion kingdom equivalent of getting knighted. Even if you didn’t have the length of bone or suppressed appetite necessary to strut down the catwalks of New York Fashion Week, having Cunningham’s lens pointed at you had the transformative quality of turning you into a model for the split second the shutter snapped. But how did this man become the sultan of street style? Why was his eye the one we all wanted to catch? In his memoir, Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs, posthumously published by Penguin Random House, we get a slight peek into his origin story, but it’s not exactly what casual fans might expect.
Born William John Cunningham Jr. in Boston to a strict Roman Catholic family, his aspirations were clear to him from the time he was very small, preferring fashion over football, much to the chagrin of his conservative parents. After dropping out of Harvard, he went to live with his aunt and uncle in New York City, where he quickly began working at famed department store Bonwit Teller. His parents required him to continue his schooling, paying for night classes at New York University, but Cunningham had different plans for his education:
[On] nights I would go as an observer to the fashionable balls, where I would take notes on styles, new and old, watching the way the gowns moved on the wearers, how the jewels hung, and how the hair laid on each head. […] To this very day my favorite pastime is people watching. It’s one of the great educations of life.
The seeds of his ethnographic proclivities were planted early. Fashion Climbing proceeds to not only detail his early career as a milliner, but catalogue all of the parties he crashed in mid-century Manhattan. There are interesting anecdotes — like how when he was stationed in France during the Korean War he’d affix flowers to his helmet and stash fashion magazines in his locker — but the book only barely reaches the time he started in fashion journalism at Women’s Wear Daily, and doesn’t relay his interest in photography at all. It’s almost like we’re reading the memoir of an entirely different person.
The fact that the book suspends Cunningham in a past that pales in comparison to his work as a photographer is exacerbated by it style of writing. The prose rather reads like a ’50s primer: formal, an almost affected sense of bemusement at anything improper, and peppered with antiquated words like “slithery” to describe a dress and “a real dilly” to connote something exciting. It’s not a criticism of the writer, for he wrote this book when that cadence was de rigueur, but rather of the publisher to unleash a book about a familiar face that feels more like a stranger. In 2018, we know Cunningham as the gentle fashion grandfather, and I, at least, would be more interested in reading about that part of his life than his beginnings written like a McCall’s feature from the Spring 1956 issue.
As a relic, and an unearthed treasure from Cunningham’s past, it’s charming, but there are many unanswered questions as to why this book exists: Did he write anything else, especially about his later years? Why did he leave it unpublished for decades? Did Cunningham even want it published? All we know is that his family discovered the manuscript after his death in 2016.
Cynics might say Fashion Climbing is a cash grab, a fully written book with a prominent name attached. Fans might say it’s an endearing look at the origins of one of fashion’s most beloved — and missed — figures. Regardless of its intention, it at least gives us another look at the man whom we all wanted to see us.
Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs by Billy Cunningham is out from Penguin Random House.