A MEMOIR WITH PHOTOGRAPHS
By BILL CUNNINGHAM
Preface by Hilton Als
After Bill Cunningham died in 2016, his family found a memoir he had written about the earlier period of his life. It was an unexpected, and enjoyable, find.
Most people remember Cunningham’s work as the photographer behind the On the Street and Evening Hours columns in the New York Times. It was hard to miss him, especially around 57th Street and 5th Avenue, his preferred spot for snapping photographs of people he considered particularly stylish. Riding his bicycle and wearing the trademark blue, French, worker’s jacket, his subjects who recognized him knew his intentions.
The book covers a much earlier and very different time. Growing up in Boston as the product of middle class, “lace curtain” Irish Catholics, he was interested in beauty and style at a very young age. The meager wages he earned as a youngster were spent on gifts for his mother, who was appalled that her son would be interested in such things and would return them. When she balked at such behavior, he began buying things for his sister. Jobs at Jordan Marsh, then Bonwit Teller, suited him spectacularly.
At Bonwit’s in New York, he became enchanted with the millinery department. At this time, costume balls, some actually quite scandalous, were all the rage. Cunningham would craft crazy hats to wear with the equally creative costumes and gowns. During this period, proper (older) ladies were not keen on outlandish headgear. He designed for a younger crowd but it was the dowagers who kept him in business with their requests for more standard and boring pieces. He always seemed to be struggling with keeping his business above-water financially, but was never unhappy. After he discovered Southampton, the very staid and conservative resort, he opened a seasonal hat shop. The locals were generally aghast at his work product but the younger set and the European visitors were thrilled. The anecdotes about his seasons in the Hamptons are some of the most amusing tales in the book.
Being drafted in military service during the Korean War might sound like the last place such a young man would want to be. Surprisingly, he thrived, based on pluck and a surprisingly accepting group of men who thought him odd but non-threatening. His aesthetic bent even elicited perks since the higher-ups realized that he could occupy the wives of the officers in locales devoid of many diversions. Originally stationed in Germany, he eventually was transferred to the much more desired France, where a general found out about his millinery skills. This connection cemented his status as an “untouchable” because of Cunningham’s work for the general’s wife.
Cunningham would observe every woman in the room to assess how she was dressed and accessorized. This obsession continued throughout his life. The title contrasts fashion climbing (his pursuit) with social climbing (practiced by practically everyone else). He views the worlds of fashion and retail as brutally cut-throat. The customers are viewed with an equally disdainful eye. It is irritating to him that A-list celebrities and wealthy socialites are often given the clothes from the designer, just for exposure and celebrity. Since he always seemed to be destitute, this was an obvious affront to him. He loved beautiful things just because they were beautiful. He was not trying to climb another rung on the social ladder.
One particularly stinging barb concerned the transition to minimalist garb. He suggests these women, in simple black dresses “considered it chic to look like the maid.” He preferred a maximalist approach to fashion and style.
Cunningham was an original, a true character, in the best sense of the word.
REVIEW: STEPHEN COY
Queerguru Contributor STEPHEN COY has been an avid reader all his (very long) life ? and is finally putting his skills to good use. He lives in Provincetown full time with his husband Jim, having finally given up the bright lights of Boston and now haunts the streets mumbling to himself that no one reads anymore …
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