Fashion Climbing

Fashion Climbing: A Memoir with Photographs

I loved him without knowing how to love him. If you think of love as an activity—a purposeful, shared exchange—what could anyone who was lucky enough to be acquainted with Bill Cunningham, the late, legendary New York Times On the Street and Evening Hours style photographer, writer, former milliner, and all-around genial fashion genius, really offer him but one’s self? I don’t mean the self we reserve for our deepest intimacies, the body and soul that goes into life with another person. No, the Cunningham exchange was based on something else, was profound in a different way, and I think it had to do with what he inspired in you, what you wanted to give him the minute you saw him on the street, or in a gilded hall: a certain faith and pride in one’s public persona—“the face that I face the world with, baby” as the fugitive star, the princess Kosmonopolis, has it in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Like the princess, Bill knew a great deal about surfaces; unlike the princess, though, he was never fatigued or undone by his search for that most elusive of sartorial qualities: style. You wanted to aid Bill in his quest for exceptional surfaces, to be beautifully dressed and interesting for him, because of the deep pleasure it gave him to notice something he had never seen before. Even if you were not the happy recipient of his interest—the subject of his camera’s click click click and Bill’s glorious toothy smile —there were very few things as pleasurable as watching his heart beat fast (you could see it behind his blue French worker’s jacket!) as he saw another fascinating woman approach, making his day. That’s just one of the things Bill Cunningham gave the world: his delight in the possibility of you. And you wanted to pull yourself together—to gather together the existential mess and bright spots called your “I”—the minute you saw Bill’s skinny frame bent low near Bergdorf’s on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street, his spot, capturing a heel, or chasing after a hemline, because here was your chance to show love to someone who lived to discover what you had made of yourself. His enthusiasm defined him from the first. It permeates this, his posthumous memoir, Fashion Climbing, which covers the years Bill worked in fashion before he picked up a camera. (He published only one book during his lifetime, 1978’s Facades, which starred his old friend, portraitist Editta Sherman, dressed in a number of period costumes Bill had collected over the years. He was not happy with the book but he was a perfectionist and anti-archival in his way of thinking, so how could a book satisfy his need to move forward, always? Fashion Climbing is, in many ways, his most unusual project. Of course at the end of his memoir he uses his story to help point the way toward fashion’s future.)

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