Bill Cunningham - Fashion Climbing - A Review

Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage Fashion Store

Fashion Climbingfashion climbing by bill cunningham

My partner bought me this book as a surprise. He'd read a review, he said "It's about all that vintage and fashion and stuff you like - and hats. I thought it sounded like you." Well, I told him if it's meant to be a surprise, you don't order it through my Amazon account then get disappointed when they spoil the surprise by sending me emails about it, but that's beside the point. I did enjoy the book very much, even though I'd never heard of Bill Cunningham before. He may be a fashion icon in the US, but he's not so well known in Australia. Now I want to know a lot more about him.

Fashion Climbing? Cunningham maintains that before World War 2, wealthy New Yorkers were social climbers, but that after the war they became fashion climbers, wanting to be seen not with the most high ranking society lady, but in the most fashionable clothes.

Young Cunningham making hats. For years he camped in whatever studio he could rent. He probably had a stretcher bed in the bathroom or a mattress under the bench.

This chatty memoir, full of interesting and amusing anecdotes from Bill's life up until about 1965, was discovered amongst his personal effects after his death in 2016 at the age of 87. He had not told anyone he had written it. He was always a very modest and self effacing man. Americans remember him fondly as the iconic street photographer - he always loved to see clothes in action. He used to entertain himself by observing what women were wearing in church and at parties. The book deals mostly with his early career as a milliner and, towards the end, with the beginning of his career as a fashion reporter covering the shows of the big fashion designer houses in Europe in the early 1960s.

Bill later went on to become famous as a fashion photographer, inventing the idea of "Street Style" as a fashion concept.

Bill's family never understood his love of women's fashion and it's sad that he felt he had to hide his work from them. When he started making women's hats after World War 2 he used the name "William J" on the label to spare his family the embarrassment of associating the Cunningham name with an industry they felt was unworthy of him.

bill cunningham william j hat 1950s feathers

Many people who are familiar with Cunningham's photo editorials don't even know that he began his career as a milliner. Cunningham's hats have been aptly described as extravagant and whimsical. He loved the theatricality of hats and he drew on his experience making fancy dress costumes and masks for New York society functions, which he gate-crashed shamelessly and repeatedly, often climbing in through fire escapes and hotel kitchen windows.

 Cunningham worked in cramped, cockroach ridden tenement rooms in New York producing hats which challenged the New York socialites. He had to make more mainstream hats to eat, but even then he learnt early not to accept funding and become beholden to financial backers. He preferred to be poor and true to his art. Above all, it's his passion and love of fun which shine through in his hat designs.

Clam shell beach hat - 1950s

Continuing the theme

bill cunningham william j spiral hat 1950s

Cunningham said : "With each season I gave the critics something to talk about, and talk they did. Too bad they didn't shut their mouths long enough to buy something new and different. Some of my critics eventually apologised  for trying to bully me out of y own ideas. Of course, it's always easier to see the light ten years after the explosion - but that's fashion: an idea that is elegant art at its time is an outrageous disgrace ten years earlier, daring five years before its height, and boring five years later" (1)

Unfortunately, few of Cunningham's hats have survived. One person bought all 23 known extant hats by William J. at auction in 2012. The buyer is apparently a patron of the Arts who knew Cunningham and plans to donate them to a museum in his honour. (2)

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1950s Cabana beach hat. He said he didn't want his friend to get sunburnt.

Cunningham closed his last hat shop in 1960. Young women just weren't wearing hats anymore. He could have been kept in business catering to hat wearing matrons, but they were too conservative and he just wasn't interested.

Chandelier hat, one of the hats sold at auction in 2012

Pheasant hat

Cunningham's hats were Art in Fashion

Cunningham spent the early 60s covering fashion shows for magazines such as Women's Wear Daily. His reports of what it was like to be at these elite fashion events are fascinating. How different are the Italian shows from the French. How uncomfortable the viewings were, how shamelessly the buyers stole the designers' ideas without buying at all.

In 2011, a documentary film called Bill Cunningham New York was made, directed by Richard Press and profiling Cunningham.

You can watch the trailer here, and if you are in the US you can watch the whole movie on Netflix. Unfortunately, the film is not available on Netflix in Australia. ):

I found the memoir fascinating, and funny. One scene in particular shortly after Cunningham was drafted into the army and keeping positive about being in uniform had me rolling around laughing. One criticism of the book is the quality of the photographs. Firstly, I would have liked to see more photographs. Secondly, the photos are just printed on the standard paper and the quality is poor. They would have looked so much better on glossy paper. Also, the last two chapters of the book appear to be random essays about fashion by Cunningham, just tacked onto the end of the book as filler. The publisher needed to make it more obvious that the memoir had ended and the essays had begun as I found the change of pace and tone a bit confusing when I was expecting to read more about Cunningham's life.

Overall, a most enjoyable read and insight into a fascinating life embroiled in fashion.

Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage Fashion Store


(1) Cunningham, Bill; Fashion Climbing; 2018; Penguin;New York; page 113

(2) Fashionista; 2012:

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