Bill Cunningham: Fashion Climbing - A New York Life
Bill Cunningham’s first love was fashion but the big city came a close second. He left for New York aged nineteen, losing his family’s support but enjoying the infinite luxury of freedom. Living on a scoop of Ovaltine a day, he would run down to Fifth Avenue to feed on the spectacular sights of the window displays – then run back to his tiny studio to work all night.
Working as ‘William J’ (to spare his parents’ blushes), Bill became one of the most celebrated hat designers of the 1950s, creating elegant town hats for movie stars and playful beach hats for the summer set. Bill’s mission was to bring happiness by making beautiful things – even if it meant pawning his bike to fund fancy-dress outfits for all his friends.
When women stopped wearing hats and his business was forced to close, Bill worked as a fashion journalist, touring the couture houses of Europe. But New York remained his home, and it was as a street photographer of the fashions of the city that he became well known, in a job that would last almost forty years.
Born in 1929 in an Irish suburb of Boston, 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 and Harper's Bazaar and worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. In the 1960s the business closed and he became a fashion journalist and photographer.
In 1978, 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 documentary Bill 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.
Title: Fashion Climbing - A New York Life
Publisher: Vintage, 2019
Author: Bill Cunningham
Size: 19.8 x 12.9 cm, 256 pages
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