|"We all dress for Bill."|
Bill Cunningham was New York's most popular party guest. He never ate or drank and didn't stay long. He mingled with guests but said very little and had more invitations for an evening than he could ever attend.
Bill Cunningham divided his time between photographing the stylish of New York society and the stylish on New York City's streets. It was his third, fourth or fifth career.
His posthumously published memoir, "Fashion Climbing" is about those early careers—stock boy for Boston department stores, army tour guide extraordinaire, hatter and all-around madcap, then fashion reporter for Woman's Wear Daily and others. The photography gig that made him famous is barely mentioned.
Reluctant to talk about himself, he participated in the wonderful documentary "Bill Cunningham New York", but revealed little. It was quite a surprise when relatives discovered this unpublished memoir. Even more surprising is how warm, funny and chatty a read it is.
|Young Bill the Hatter|
It's not clear when "Fashion Climbing" was written. It seems to end mid-60s when Bill was still reporting on fashion but no longer for Woman's Wear Daily. St. Laurent has taken over at Dior but Balenciaga is still alive and designing.
The term "fashion climbing" is one I had never heard; he uses it to represent social climbing with clothes. I might take exception as he states that this began after World War II, when women no longer "wore lovely clothes for the sheer pleasure and joy of pleasing their friends." I would think status dressing has always been a thing, from the days of the House of Worth to having a "store bought" as opposed to a "home made" dress.
For one who first became aware of fashion when women really did still wear hats, his stories of New York City, late '40s through '50s, showed me how much I missed. No other American city was so tuned to the power of fashion. What a show it was, and Bill Cunnigham relished watching every minute of it.
|Editta modeling a hat for Bill|
He doesn't always name names, but it's easy to figure out a few of the unnamed. I immediately recognized Editta Sherman, his long-time friend and neighbor at the Carnegie Hall Studios. A photographer herself (that's her on page 231), she would rent her studio to visiting foreign photographers. By the mid-'60s I would often be sent to pick up processed film as part of my duties at Glamour Magazine. Unfortunately I never saw Bill there.
"Fashion Climbing" could have used a good editor in places, but then it wouldn't have been like having a conversation (over tea and a sandwich at Schrafft's) with such a wise and slightly wicked charmer.