Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs

Bill Cunningham. Penguin Press, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-525-55870-5
The legendary New York Times photographer whose extraordinary eye captured high fashion and high society in his columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” turns his focus to his early years and early career in this surprising and sprightly posthumous memoir. Cunningham (1929–2016), who grew up in an Irish Catholic suburb of Depression-era Boston, recalls his first brush with fashion at age four when he donned his sister’s pink organza party dress. Though reprimanded by his Boston-proper mother, the incident didn’t deter him from a lifelong obsession with clothes and couture. After dropping out of Harvard at 19, Cunningham moved to New York, where he worked in carriage-trade retail and then struck out on his own as a high-end hat designer whose often outrageous millinery was inspired by fruit, fish, and fowl. His antics and adventures—hiding behind plants at a Chanel show or under a table at a debutante ball, sneaking into the Waldorf Astoria to glimpse Queen Elizabeth—give readers a front-row seat on the mid-century fashion world, and the black and white photos, many featuring a dapper, young Cunningham beaming ear to ear, document a fantastical bygone era. For all the book’s frivolity, Cunningham is a truth teller in an artifice-draped world: he calls some of the customers who bought his hats “star-spangled bitches... full of conniving tricks to get the price as low as possible” and singles out Women’s Wear Daily publisher John Fairchild as a fake who played favorites. The glamorous world of 20th-century fashion comes alive in Cunningham’s masterful memoir both because of his exuberant appreciation for stylish clothes and his sharp assessment of those who wore them. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 05/21/2018
Release date: 09/04/2018

Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio

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