NONFICTION

Fashion Climbing

Penguin. Sept. 2018. 256p. photos. ISBN 9780525558705. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780525558712. MEMOIR
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OrangeReviewStarBefore Cunningham (1929–2016) was a photographer and a "living landmark," he wanted nothing more than to create fanciful hats and observe what chic New York ladies were wearing. In the days of outlandish headwear, his milliner's antennae reached further than most, to octopus shapes and floor-length fringe. Crashing elegant parties and designer shows in the 1950s and 1960s served as his self-education in fashion. In this posthumous memoir (affectionately prefaced by Hilton Als), Cunningham recounts formative years as a style obsessive misunderstood by his conservative family. After dropping out of Harvard and moving to New York City, he sells eccentric hats as "William J." and sees Europe in the army. In a distinctive voice that rasps off the page, he tells delightful stories of impoverished creative types decorating before a party, improvising a dress from a shower curtain, or hiding under a table to glimpse a fashion show: "These were wonderful wild days, when fashion was all we ate and drank." As the title suggests, Cunningham cattily observes how for some, fashion is social climbing, for others the pure love of beautiful things.
VERDICT This madcap insider account of the mid-20th-century fashion world is a gift for fans of Cunningham's photography.

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