Clothes were everything to me

Lisa Cohen

  • Fashion Climbing: A New York Life by Bill Cunningham
    Chatto, 256 pp, £16.99, October 2018, ISBN 978 1 78474 281 2

A small boy, four years old, ‘parading around’ in his sister’s ‘prettiest dress’, blissfully happy, until: ‘My mother beat the hell out of me, and threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls’ clothes again.’ He wept, but did not fail to note where his tears fell: ‘all over the pink organdy full-skirted dress’.

A young boy, rechannelling that desire for beauty, now using his earnings as a paper boy to buy his mother clothes – his shopping exuberance still mortifying her.

A young man, devoted to his coiffure, insisting to his friends and everyone around that the colour of his newly dyed hair is ‘tangerine’.

The first two are Bill Cunningham in 1930s suburban Boston, during the childhood he describes in the posthumously published Fashion Climbing: A New York Life. The last I saw myself on a crosstown bus in New York this spring, and was the kind of figure who would have fascinated Cunningham. All three vignettes testify to a certain queer persistence, or endurance of spirit, and to a passion for descriptive specificity when it comes to self-adornment: what some call style.

Cunningham, who died in 2016 at 87, was celebrated for the weekly photo essays he published for decades in the New York Times: ‘On the Street’ was an exquisite exercise in public pattern recognition, and ‘Evening Hours’ his version of a society column. His knowledge of fashion history was profound, and he knew it. He had an almost photographic memory and was perpetually in search of styles to delight his eye. He was celebrated, too, for his sweetness and rigour, unpretentiousness and uncorruptible professional ethics – none of these common currency in his milieu. When he writes in Fashion Climbing that the ‘principal reason’ he opened his millinery business ‘was to bring happiness to the world by making women an inspiration to themselves and everyone who saw them’, it may sound like the usual, gendered fashion hyperbole, but I believe him. Those who admired his work as an observer of fashion – and he was much praised in the last years of his life – invariably emphasised his disregard for worldly pleasure. He had a spartan domestic existence (no television, no phone), wasn’t interested in food, travelled in all seasons on his bicycle, worked non-stop, and said that his métier was his greatest enjoyment. ‘I do everything, really, for myself,’ he wrote in 2002. The fact that no one owned him was beyond price: ‘Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom is the most expensive.’

Fashion Climbing is the story of his life before he was known as a photographer, though not before he picked up a camera: from early on he would ‘dash around … taking pictures of everything I thought was newest’ at parties, on holiday, on the street. It is also the story of ‘the beginning of my understanding what made beautiful clothes’ and of the first few acts in the life of someone whose family’s shame about him was such that when he became a hat designer, at scarcely twenty years old, he did so semi-anonymously as ‘William J.’ and ‘William Jay’. We see his overwhelming desire to be close to women’s clothes transmuted into the need to know everything about them. He doesn’t reflect on how a flamboyant maker became a self-effacing documenter, but does display some of the self-abnegation for which he became known. In the opening paragraph of the memoir, ‘I’ was not weeping, ‘My eyes [were] spattering tears.’ Having been assaulted – ‘pinned to the dining room wall’ – and beaten for what he loved and who he was, he goes on to describe his relentless shopping for his sisters as ‘my assault of buying clothes’.

The book continues mostly as it began: it is a precise, unrancorous (mostly) record of his nascent sensibility, ‘self-education in fashion’, unfettered excitements, hard work, mistakes and triumphs as he learned to trust his own vision. It charts the risks of his fascination with femininity and exposes a tension between written self-exposure and other kinds of public performance, between ‘wildness’ and intense self-control. I say ‘nascent’, but he seems to have emerged fully formed. Fashion Climbing describes his inescapable love of design, even as his conservative Irish Catholic family continued in a ‘state of frenzy’ over this boy who vibrated with ‘attraction to feminine fashion’. He ‘usually got hell when my mother got her hands on me’, drawn as he continued to be to her closet, his sister’s dresses, and the costumes of the little girls he played with. Sent to trade school to ‘knock this artistic nature out of me’, he ‘just couldn’t resist putting the wood on a lathe and making all the fanciest turns I knew how’. Because Fashion Climbing is about refusing to be cowed, his ‘spindle-legged tables were a howling success’. ‘What I couldn’t do with the blowtorch and anvil! Everything I made had curlicues and twists.’

During these years, he made ‘secret trips’ to Boston’s ‘fashionable stores’, thrilling to every element: the delicate chairs, perfumed air, grand stairways, mahogany vitrines. Finding work as a stock boy at Jordan Marsh, the city’s largest department store, made his trade school ‘prison’ bearable. Assigned to the ready-to-wear department, he gravitated towards the ‘better dresses, furs and handbags’, scrutinising each piece to learn how it was made. ‘Clothes were everything to me,’ he writes – as if it were not clear already. By the age of 18, he was working at the newly opened Boston branch of the upscale Bonwit Teller, and in November 1948, after an unhappy semester at Harvard (it, too, was ‘like being in prison’), he moved to New York and a job at Bonwit’s flagship store.

He had studied women’s clothing as a boy in church (he could ‘describe every interesting fashion worn by the two hundred or so ladies’ he saw at the Easter service) and would stand outside the Ritz ‘sizing up’ the dowagers arriving for afternoon tea. After a Bonwit’s manager advised him not just to make mental inventories of the women and outfits he saw, but to improve on their choices – reclothe them in his imagination – this man who was seen latterly as legendarily shy became a legendary party crasher. He spent five nights a week in New York in the 1940s and 1950s ‘peeking from behind some silk curtain or potted palm’, or looking down from a ballroom balcony, to ‘take notes on all the styles, new and old, watching the way the gowns moved on the wearers, how the jewels hung, and how the hair laid on each head’, training his eye ‘on their chic clothes as I mentally rearranged them to what I thought best for the women’s individual types’. He discovered the back entrances to many buildings and theatres and would disguise himself as a waiter to get inside. To see the dresses at one private ball, he sat for two hours under a table at the Plaza Hotel, then emerged after a critical mass of guests had arrived and he could mingle unnoticed. He made it a point of honour never to accept any food or drink.

Despite his chutzpah, he was frightened by these events: he felt the ‘shame of overindulgence, and … the strongest desire to escape to the discomforts of the poor’. The discomforts were a reality: Cunningham chose millinery because the materials were more affordable than those for dress design. He had wealthy New York relatives, but they would not support his work. After he set up shop – first on East 52nd Street between Madison and Park in a former speakeasy, then, after army service, on unfashionable West 54th Street – he slept in his workplace, which was also his showroom. Difficulty spurred him. He decorated these spaces with abandon, on a shoestring. When it got too hot, he sat in the bathtub in his bathing suit working with straw that had to be soaked before he could drape it into seashell shapes. He often went hungry. ‘Nothing was going to stop me,’ he says more than once, and he was tireless, doing endless odd jobs – as a janitor to earn a reduced rent, as a delivery boy for the corner drugstore – while designing his collections. Even in his years of greatest success, he worked in a restaurant for free dinners during the lean summer months when his wealthy clients left the city.

Fashion Climbing sometimes reads as a picaresque tale, but it is a drama of creative survival and its strategies, vividly felt. There was the struggle to make something original, and his sense that he ‘was fighting for something much deeper than original design’. Then there was the challenge of getting people – women and store buyers – to purchase his creations. The first he achieved by freeing himself from ‘outside influences’; the second was a constant frustration. By the mid-1950s, he was allowing his ideas full rein and had five people ‘stitching up a storm’ in his workroom. Designing each new collection he would go into seclusion and work late into the night, ‘draping and pulling’ the felts ‘as my imagination spilled through my hands. Some nights when the feeling was strong in my fingers, I could drape thirty hats, one after the other. Other nights, try as I might, nothing would come to my hands.’

Cunningham wants to inspire readers who are creative to ‘never hold back’. But he knows that in the New York fashion world, unlike Paris, there is ‘no shelter for experimentation’. He reserves his rancour not for his family, but for the editors who urged him to contain his inventiveness (‘I have many scars from the barbed wire traps [they] set for me’); the critics who tried to ‘bully’ him out of his ideas (some ‘eventually apologised’); and the ‘65 per cent of the women buying high fashion [who] act like star-spangled bitches, never satisfied, and full of conniving tricks to get the price as low as possible’, or not pay at all. The exactitude of the figure is jarring, as is the epithet.

This is an author who claimed he was not a writer, just as he disavowed his prowess with the camera. ‘I suppose, in a funny way, I’m a record keeper,’ he said in 2002. When he closed his millinery business and began to write for Women’s Wear Daily, he made a point of using demotic language, he tells us, to be accessible to his audience. He resigned (a fact he does not include) when Women’s Wear changed his copy in one piece to sound dismissive of ordinary women wearing high fashion. He is scathing about most fashion writing, practised in his view by those interested only in sensational headlines, with no real knowledge of the field, and no sense of how to dress themselves. (His mathematical instinct is present again in his despair over ‘the phoniness that covers 90 per cent of the fashion press’.)

Fish hat by Bill Cunningham
Fish hat by Bill Cunningham

In fact, his language is one of the great, idiosyncratic pleasures of Fashion Climbing. ‘Going back to school was really the monster for me,’ he writes early on. Holidays were the time ‘when I could express all the fancy thoughts in my head’, and ‘Easter Sunday … was the dandy day of my life.’ Of his decision to quit his safe job at Jordan Marsh for Bonwit’s: ‘I had to be in the middle of the soup.’ He often speaks right to us: ‘You’d just die if you saw the press after a big show in Paris.’ The mixture of descriptive verve, incongruity, slang of another time, seeming coinages, simplicity and weirdness was as alive in his millinery as in his sentences. All the fancy thoughts in his head, made tangible in a hat, included the almost abstraction of a ‘beach hat that … was a huge umbrella-size straw brim with long celluloid fringe sewn around the brim edge, hanging to the floor’, and a ‘rather uninhibited number made of scouring pads from the five-and-dime store and stretched over a helmet of gold lamé, with big black feathers shooting out of it’. Cunningham was obsessed with feathers. Writing about one of his summer collections, Women’s Wear Daily ‘raved that “such inventive use of feathers hadn’t been seen in many a generation, and midway through … the large audience was fully aware that it was viewing one of the most creative millinery shows seen in ten years.”’ He also made a ‘hat in the shape of a cherry pie with a slice out of the back where it fit over the fashionable chignon of the time’; hats with fruit and flowers (‘Life-size apples hung on profile hats of red felt; daisies were wrapped around plaid duckbills’); ‘hats in the shapes of fish and vegetables, and one huge octopus hat that scared the hell out of everyone’; not to mention ‘a simple little pussycat hat in white fur-like material with feathered whiskers and the most seductive blue eyes you’ve ever seen’. Cunningham showed his last collection in 1962: ‘space helmets, sleek and naked of trimming, just pure shape, moulded like the cones of rockets and racing headgear’.

The manuscript for Fashion Climbing was found after his death, and those responsible for bringing it to light have said that they don’t know when it was written. The story ends seemingly in the mid to late 1960s, after he had started working as a journalist, but before he was taking pictures full-time. He does not mention helping to found the original Details magazine in 1982, where he regularly showed photographic spreads of a hundred pages. In the last chapters, his tone and approach shift: the hortatory quality of much fashion writing gets more play; ‘On Taste’ is something like a manifesto, approaching fashion theory. Perhaps the closer he got to his present, the more difficult it became to write autobiography. Throughout, we encounter forgotten characters like Rose Cumming, of the purple hair and magnificent display windows; ‘the fascinating Mr [Herman Patrick] Tappé’, another ‘truly original designer’; and Nona Park and Sophie Shonnard of Chez Ninon, the discreet seller of approved reproductions (and modifications) of Paris couture to US society women, who took Cunningham under their wing, brought him to the Paris collections, but usually found his ideas too outré for their clients. ‘All during my fashion career, my life has been involved with’ them, he writes – a present tense that perhaps dates the manuscript, since Chez Ninon closed in the mid-1970s. He does not mention his close friendship with the illustrator/stylist Antonio Lopez and his partner, Juan Ramos. By the end of the narrative, he has moved into the enormous duplex apartment over Carnegie Hall that also housed his last salon. He does not say that he then turned this vast space over to Lopez and Ramos, taking a studio eyrie in the same building for himself. It was Lopez, a generation younger, who in the mid-1960s in London brought Cunningham to dinner with the photographer David Montgomery, and Montgomery who gave him the first camera he started using seriously. (Cunningham is a key figure in the new documentary on Lopez, Ramos and their crowd, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco; it was his last interview, and the film is dedicated to him.)

Why might it matter when he wrote it? Because timing mattered to him – and is everything to fashion. ‘To be seen at the opera or a concert in a tailored suit or day dress is just as awful as the wrong feathers at the wrong hour of the day,’ he instructs us. Fashion ‘mirrors the spirit of our times’, he writes at one point, and at another that it is always predicting the future – a common conceptual muddle. It is about ‘constant change’, and ‘must be instantaneous’, but is also fundamentally asynchronous, since a design ‘idea that is elegant at its time is an outrageous disgrace ten years earlier, daring five years before its height, and boring five years later’. Cunningham himself, he boasts, ‘often’ set trends ‘years in advance of Paris’. Once, he showed

spring hats with flowers growing right up out of the head. The buyers screamed, ‘Ridiculous! Prostituting your talent!’ and walked out of the shop. A month later they saw the same idea at the top house in Paris. I still have their frantic telegrams, telling me to rush a dozen of my so-called ridiculous ideas to their stores.

Timing matters, too, because it’s important to be able to tether Cunningham’s exhortations to their moment, and because his lavish descriptions produce, in my brain at least, a simultaneous transport away from and intensification of the present – as in this portrait of the Dior directrice Madame Bricard in the 1960s: ‘A tall baby-blue felt cone hat wrapped in yards of spidery black veil exposed marcelled black curls over each ear, which were hung with pearls and blood-red rubies; from the hat edge over the right eye dangled a brooch with a pearl the size of a nightingale’s egg. A pearl hatpin anchored the seductive veiling …’ It goes on.

Cunningham (centre) and friends wearing his creations
Cunningham (centre) and friends wearing his creations

It matters because different clothes, as he notes, ‘change the personality of the user’, and because I can’t help wondering who he would have been if he’d been allowed to wear all that pleased him. The pink organdy dress was not the last piece of his sister’s he put on, and the awkward shifts and concerted assertions of the following sentence are painful to read: ‘No matter how many times my mother caught me wearing my sister’s first long party dress, which was peach satin – and I know I wore it more than she did – I knew my destiny was to create beautiful women and place them in fantastic surroundings.’ His later (often commented on) uniform of blue French worker’s jacket and khaki slacks is nowhere in sight in Fashion Climbing. Instead we meet a dandy who even under his parents’ roof wore ‘outrageous bright shirts and ties’ and ‘spent seven days a week deciding what I’d wear the next week’.

And it matters because the end of millinery coincided with incipient gay liberation in New York. When Cunningham opened a summer shop in Southampton, Long Island, in the 1950s, ‘gay boys from neighbouring communities were [his] best customers,’ and he would wear his ‘wildest beach hats’ about the village. He calls it advertisement, but it was also a way to parade in his own work. Life in New York in those early years saw him blowing off steam between collections by designing costumes for himself and friends for the balls then held each spring. The ‘most gorgeous’ of all, for which he won a thousand dollar prize, ‘used ten miles of red feathers and sequins to expose my beautiful girlfriend and cover myself’.

Connotation generally triumphs over denotation in this book, but Cunningham acknowledges that his kind uncle, in whose Park Avenue home he lived when he arrived in New York, but who barely spoke to him for a year after he learned his nephew had been designing hats under his roof, was probably ‘scared to death of all the homosexuals he had heard about in fashion’. His desire for sartorial excitement may have been at least as strong as his sexual desire. But the point is also the frequent slippage between those drives: when he finally found his way to his own ideas about design, ‘there wasn’t an inhibition left in my body.’ ‘It’s a crime families don’t understand how their children are oriented,’ he writes,

and point them along their natural way. My poor family was probably scared to death by all these crazy ideas I had, and so they fought my direction every inch of the way. American society has a lot to understand about the natural creative desires of children. Parents should stop feeling ashamed of the arts, and this trend of thinking men who are interested in ballet, opera and fields of design are just a lot of sissies has caused more unhappy family break-ups.

This is a cri de coeur that must be parsed in the context of Cold War homophobia. Yet, given his reluctance during his lifetime to name his sexuality publicly, one wants at the same time to let it and him be, to resist the demand to surveille and classify that also characterised postwar life in the US.

Fashion Climbing is Cunningham’s second book. The first, Façades, is the record of a photographic project he worked on for almost a decade, documenting the histories of fashion and New York architecture in tandem. It is a giddy and meticulous series, with image after image of his friend Editta Sherman in the historic costumes that he collected for years, set against comparably dated buildings from the colonial period to the early 1970s. His dedication to detail and the DIY nature of the work are both in evidence here: when he photographed Sherman from below, to produce his juxtapositions of outfit and landmark, the stool on which she stood is often visible, speaking volumes about this effort to redress the way different cultural artefacts are valued. Façades was published in 1978 by the Fashion Institute of Technology after an exhibition of the photographs at its museum; a few appear in Fashion Climbing. The project is of that moment when some who cared about fashion queerly were trying hard to present it in conversation with more permanent forms of production to make a point about fashion’s importance.

What he wore and did not wear, what he saw and what he knew, who he was and what he made. By 2009, Cunningham had himself been declared a ‘Living Landmark’ for his contributions to New York. As a milliner, and as a photographer of and thinker about fashion, he believed in the characteristic gesture and in work that could ‘inspire you to actively debate’. His contribution was the linked discernment and inclusiveness of his eye. His contribution was the way he taught us to look: with historical understanding, and showing no favour to power or celebrity. As he said, he never really saw the people he was photographing, only the clothes. It is easy to imagine that he did not want to publish the manuscript while he was alive, given the attention it would have brought him. And it seems right that the book ends with the abrupt flourish of a two-sentence chapter, called ‘Laura Johnson’s Philosophy’ (it is assumed we know of this philanthropist and society woman), the entirety of which reads: ‘To anyone designing for her, her advice was: “Don’t walk while designing for me; run, run, run, till you’re out of breath! Then throw out all your timid thoughts, and give me emotion.”’ Concluding with someone else’s voice may be a typically unassuming gesture, but Fashion Climbing, like its author, is deeply emotional – a rather uninhibited number as well as reticent; at once full of whimsy and emphatic in expertise; dedicated above all to an expansive love.