The untold story of a New York City legend's education in creativity and style
The beloved fashion and society photographer Bill Cunningham, who worked for The New York Times for nearly 40 years, left behind an enormous photographic archive valued at $1 million. He also, his family discovered with some surprise upon his death in 2016, left a written memoir.
For Bill Cunningham, New York City was the land of freedom, glamour, and, above all, style. Growing up in a lace-curtain Irish suburb of Boston, secretly trying on his sister's dresses and spending his evenings after school in the city's chicest boutiques, Bill dreamed of a life dedicated to fashion. But his desires were a source of shame for his family, and after dropping out of Harvard, he had to fight them tooth-and-nail to pursue his love.
When he arrived in New York, he revelled in people-watching. He spent his nights at opera openings and gate-crashing extravagant balls, where he would take note of the styles, new and old, watching how the gowns moved, how the jewels hung, how the hair laid on each head. This was his education, and the birth of the democratic and exuberant taste that he came to be famous for as a photographer for The New York Times. After two style mavens--the women who eventually gave Jackie Kennedy her famous pink Chanel suit--took Bill under their wing, his creativity thrived and he made a name for himself as a designer. Taking on the alias William J.--because designing under his family's name would have been a disgrace to his parents--Bill became one of the era's most outlandish and celebrated hat designers, catering to movie stars, heiresses, and artists alike. Bill's mission was to bring happiness to the world by making women an inspiration to themselves and everyone who saw them.
Fashion Climbing is the story of a young man striving to be the person he was born to be: a true original. But although he was one of the city's most recognized and treasured figures, Bill was also one of its most guarded. Written with his infectious joy and one-of-a-kind voice, this memoir was polished, neatly typewritten, and safely stored away in his lifetime. He held off on sharing it--and himself--until his passing. Between these covers, is an education in style, an effervescent tale of a bohemian world as it once was, and a final gift to the readers of one of New York's great characters.
About the Author
Born in 1929, Bill Cunningham dropped out of Harvard and moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion. In 1948, he started his hat design business, ‘William J’ ; his hats were featured in Vogue andHarper's Bazaar and worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. In the 1960s the business closed and he became a fashion journalist and photographer.
In1978, he joined the New York Times. In later years, Cunningham could regularly be seen on his bicycle, in his French workman’s jacket, photographing fashion trends for his columns ‘On the Street’ and ‘Evening Hours’. He was the subject of the acclaimed documentaryBill Cunningham, New York (2010) in which Anna Wintour confided that ‘we all dress for Bill’.
Bill Cunningham died in 2016, aged 87. He had always lived modestly, amidst ‘William J’ hatboxes and the filing cabinets housing his photographic archive. The prepared typescript of Fashion Climbing was found among his effects.
"Fashion Climbing has everything you'd want in a fashion memoir (industry politics, elaborate window displays, hijinks at galas), but it's also a manifesto for living authentically. Just like Bill Cunningham's photography, this book is anti-snobbery, pro-having-fun-at-all-costs, and awake to the pleasures of being oneself" -- Tavi Gevinson, Editor in Chief, Rookie
"Peppered with delightful colloquialisms...the text bears the signature voice that endeared him to readers... Yet, despite an ample dose of whimsy, there's also a backbone to this cosy memoir... Fashion Climbing celebrates one of the industry's fiercest advocates of sartorial joie de vivre, who established himself on the fashion ladder "not with refined dignity but with an angry howl"." -- Lauren Sarazen * AnOther Magazine *
"Fashion Climbing is the captivating glimpse through the keyhole of this dizzying, dazzling world, and captures the buzz and bluster of a fashion life lived to the full" * Red Magazine *
"Bill Cunningham's enchanting memoir of his love affair with fashion and the people who created, shaped, analysed, and wore it in the combustible years after the Second World War is a delight and a revelation, proving that his pen was as astute as his lens. This lively, compelling, and invaluable social history tells us as much about the mores of the age as it does about the era's seismic fashion revolutions and reflects the wonder that Bill saw in creation throughout his life" -- Hamish Bowles, International Editor at Large, Vogue
"As you read about his journey to the top you'll definitely laugh and, most importantly, learn why it's crucial to always be yourself" * InStyle *
"A thing of beauty ... Full of acerbic wit, and a Holly Golightly tone" -- Sophie Jean-Louis Constantine * Elle *
"This obscenely enjoyable romp fills in part of the Cunningham back story and provides tantalizing peeks in the psyche of the guarded and mysterious Bill... I can only hope there's another installment lurking in his archives to give us further insights into the much-missed Bill" -- Simon Doonan * New York Times Book Review *
"An unexpected gift... Behind the boyish enthusiasm and well-scrubbed good looks, he could be a cool observer of the passing scene" -- Dwight Garner * The New York Times *
"Cunningham's memoir is a charming ode to being true to oneself" * NPR *
"Enjoy the glorious, glamorous ride" -- Lucy Scholes * Independent *
"Legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died in 2016, but he's brilliantly alive in Fashion Climbing, a posthumously published memoir chronicling his early days as a young man in Boston, a soldier in Europe during the Korean War, and a hat designer in glamorous midcentury New York. In addition to having a wild imagination for millinery and an unmatched eye for genuine style, Cunningham writes of his near-psychic ability for knowing where fashion was headed next" * Entertainment Weekly *
"The phenomenal joie de vivre of the legendary New York Times photographer, who died at 87 in 2016, bursts off the pages of this chronicle of the early days of his career. His escapades as a renegade hat designer in New York, an Army private in Europe, a gate -crasher and people watcher in high society are enchanting, his passion for fashion irresistible" -- People
"Fashion Climbing... [is] a fascinating portrait of the changing world of fashion as seen by someone at its centre" * Monocle *
"Surprising and sprightly... A front-row seat on the mid-century fashion world... 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" * Publishers Weekly *
"Cunningham's writing is authentic, irreverent, and quintessentially New York... A lively tale of a life in style and a delightful homage to the days before women stopped wearing hats" * Kirkus Reviews *