September 25, 2018
FASHION CLIMBING: A MEMOIR WITH PHOTOGRAPHS, BY BILL CUNNINGHAM. Preface by Hilton Als. New York: Penguin Press, 2018. 256 pages.
BILL CUNNINGHAM WAS A NEW YORK INSTITUTION best known for his columns in the New York Times,“On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” which featured photographs documenting everything in fashion from street trends to high society gatherings. Cunningham lived his life in thrall of beauty, working his way from clothing delivery boy to stock boy to milliner to fashion reporter to beloved street photographer, his trajectory interrupted only once by a brief stint in the military. He died in 2016 at the age of eighty-seven, leaving behind a trove of images—The New York Post reported them to be worth one million dollars—and a modest autobiography, Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs. The book was a secret until after his death, not surprising for a man who valued his anonymity as a means to work without distraction. Equal parts life story and artist’s manual, Fashion Climbing is also a philosophical treatise on the value and necessity of dressing well, both for oneself and for the world. The chatty prose of his chronicle, which takes us only so far as his tenure at Women’s Wear Daily in the 1960s and a few of the years that followed as a freelance reporter-at-large, is imbued with great warmth, yet is most alive in descriptions of the clothing which gave his rose-tinted memories its flashes of Technicolor.
Consider Fashion Climbing’s opening scene, a violent episode from his childhood in the suburbs of Boston, precipitated by the donning of his sister’s “prettiest dress” when Bill was just four years old: “That summer day, in 1933, as my back was pinned to the dining room wall, my eyes spattering tears all over the pink organdy full-skirted dress, my mother beat the hell out of me, and threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls’ clothes again.” Here his psychological origins are plain as day; Cunningham would convert trauma into his lifelong pursuit of the pleasures of style. But also here, the mise en scène becomes minor accessory to the main event: pink organdy full-skirted dress. Even more disarming than his candid relay of formative gender policing is the beginning of Cunningham’s follow-up sentence, devoid of irony: “My dear parents…” Throughout Fashion Climbing, pain is rehabilitated into a certain joie de vivre, defying the nastiest tropes of fashion—elitism, gossip, and conspicuous consumption to name a few of its evils—to produce a jaunty narrative of jarringly wholesome affect, his sweet eccentricity forming a veneer for his closely guarded self, which he constructed as finely as any piece of couture.
Cunningham’s approach to adversity reminds me of a principle that Roland Barthes, a sartorial theorist in his own right, outlined in his 1977–78 lecture series, The Neutral: “I find the Neutral as that which outplays the paradigm, or rather I call Neutral everything that baffles the paradigm … ‘To outplay the paradigm’ is an ardent, burning activity.” Cunningham and Barthes are kindred spirits in a certain dandy Zen, defying the societal demands of traditional “masculine” interest, preferring to rove and gloss culture with an inventive gentility. These are men oriented toward the exquisite detail as a means of reorienting (and ultimately disorienting) discourse. If the popular paradigm of fashion is one of exclusivity, Cunningham disposes of it plainly, finding compelling dress in all pockets of the social strata, and creating inroads on surfaces previously neglected by the imagination. When Cunningham was drafted in 1950 at the start of the Korean War, which abruptly halted his first foray into professional hatmaking under the moniker “William J.,” he embraced the moment as an opportunity to see Paris for the first time, and described with earnest delight his days of boot camp in Fort Dix, New Jersey: “During basic training I was the star of camouflage maneuvers. My helmet was always covered with a dazzling garden of flowers and grass. . . . I can remember the exasperation of the sergeant as my spectacular headgear stood out like the Garden of Eden on a desert. . . .”
From the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham, New York, one learns that Cunningham was a devout Catholic, and never had any significant romantic entanglements of which to speak. He doesn’t dwell too much on these aspects of his life in Fashion Climbing—his family’s ongoing rejection of his life’s work may have played no small part in that reticence to disclose what was most personal—but he does provide us with a clue as to how his steadfast religious orientation might have helped sustain him in the solitary nature of his aesthetic passions. While stationed in Europe, he made a habit of visiting ski resorts in the Swiss alps on the weekends as an opportunity to ski, which he loved, and to keep up with glamorous winter looks. (Cunningham charged himself with organizing cultural field trips for his fellow servicemen to improve morale). In a most explicit nod to his faith, he recalls: “Zooming down the mountainside in freshly fallen snow, between the fir trees laden with fluffy white, I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful feeling it is when you feel all alone in the world, sliding down at terrific speed. I always felt it was the perfect place to commune with God.”
Like Cunningham, I too was formed (for better or worse) by the strictures, rituals and theatricality of Catholicism, so there is something familiar in the religiosity of his faith in fashion even as he sketches it with his extraordinarily light touch. For him, every discomfort allows an opportunity to seek the sublime divine, from the poor New York rentals he converted into his first studio-salons, to the stresses of covering opulent collections by Dior, Balenciaga and Chanel on a reporter’s shoestring budget. After leaving Women’s Wear Daily because of censorship and lost trust, Cunningham paid his own way to the shows, to open what he liked to call “the fashion gates to heaven.” Whether perched on cramped staircases or sitting on dreadfully uncomfortable chairs, running on little sleep or anxious about being barred admittance to the pageantry, Cunningham still prostrated himself before the bizarre pecking orders and rituals of Fashion—as a token of his gratitude to be in the presence of transcendent design.
Part of what made Cunningham such a curiosity over the course of his career was his belief that fashion and kindness needn’t be at odds with each other. What greater bafflement could he conjure in that world? Describing his departure from the department store Bonwit’s in the late 1940s to strike out on his own as an independent artist, Cunningham writes: “The principal reason for me to start my own business was to bring happiness to the world by making women an inspiration to themselves and everyone who saw them. I wanted fashion to be happy—but oh my God, what an idealist I was!” Yet for Cunningham, it appears that idealism was a kind of practicality. It enabled him to live unencumbered by monotony or boredom, which is the mythical raison d’être of style’s saving grace.