The secret life of fashion’s favourite photographer is revealed in a new memoir

Photo: Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist

Frankie Graddon gets a first look at Bill Cunningham’s Fashion Climbing

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By Frankie Graddon on

Though highly respected for his fashion images for The New York Times, which so successfully captured the fashion zeitgeist of the moment (before street style became the contrived set-up it is now), it was Cunningham himself who captured the industry’s hearts. Wearing his signature blue French workman’s jacket, he was renowned for his charm and humility (he would refuse chauffeured cars, instead preferring to ride his bicycle – even in the snow). Throughout his long career, Cunningham garnered the respect of the entire fashion world – as Vogue’s Anna Wintour says, in the 2011 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, "We all get dressed for Bill."

Cunningham no doubt shaped the world of street-style photography, something that has now become as big a part – some may argue even bigger – of fashion week as the designer shows. Thanks to the omnipresence of street style on social media, even after his death in 2016, the Cunningham effect lives on. However, before the photographs, Cunningham made his impression on the fashion world in an entirely different way. Hats.

In the soon-to-be-released written memoir, Fashion Climbing, Cunningham tells us in his own words how, aged 19, he arrived in New York to establish his own millinery label – William J. Famously living off “a scoop of Ovaltine a day”, he created avant-garde hats for high-society city women and film stars, from his various box-room workshops. His esteemed clientele (which included Jayne Mansfield and Julie Andrews) and imaginative designs soon saw him become one of the most celebrated hat designers of the 1950s.

Bill Cunningham in his workshop

An illustration for William J 

 A romp through New York’s post-war fashion world, the book regales stories of outlandish costume parties (one of which saw Cunningham build a 12ft papier-mâché elephant); outlandish fashion shows (for his July 1956 show, Cunningham emptied his small apartment of his personal belongings and filled it with wild orchids and stuffed birds); and even more outlandish hats – octopus beach hat, anyone? All of which are underpinned by Cunningham’s determined and unwavering thirst for original idea and unique design.  

One of Cunningham's beach hats

An advert for William J fan hats

A notoriously private person, Cunningham’s memoir offers the first real look into his fantastical, but, at times, almost tragic, personal life. In the first paragraph of the first chapter, he writes how when, as a young child, he was caught “parading around our middle-class Catholic home” wearing his “sister’s prettiest dresses”, his mother beat him. When he set up his hat label it was under the name William J, leaving off his last name so as not to upset his family. A peacock in a puritan world, throughout the book there is the sense that Cunningham was continuously caught between two realms.

Cunningham on the New York social scene with one of his designs

Cunningham at a costume party

The book concludes with Cunningham reaching the pinnacle of his fashion climb. After the closure of William J, due to the fall in popularity of women’s hats during the 60s, we see Cunningham transform into a fashion journalist. Reporting on European fashions, Cunningham is admitted behind the velvet rope of the most prestigious design houses, from Balenciaga to Dior. But far from being blindsided by big names, Cunningham stays true to his conviction of the original until the very end: “There’s only one rule in fashion that you should remember… when you feel you know everything, and have captured the spirit of today’s fashion, that’s the very instant to stand everything you have learned upside down and discover new ways in which to use the old formula for the spirit of today. Constant change is the breath of fashion.”

Bill Cunningham Fashion Climbing is released 4 October by Penguin Random House. Pre-order a copy here


Photo: Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist
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