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Bill Cunningham: An Enigma in a Blue Sanitation Worker’s Jacket

On a related note, we have Bill’s make-do-and-mend, zero-waste sensibility. Costumes and hats are often made from discards and objets trouvés. Any garret, no matter how grim, can be transformed into a nifty salon de chapeaux with a dollop of white paint and some moth-eaten Austrian drapes bought from the Salvation Army. Just be sure to shake the cockroaches out of any hat before placing it on madam’s head.

In “Fashion Climbing,” madam is king. Men barely get a look-in. At the Dior show, we hear nothing of Monsieur Dior himself, only an orgasmic account of his muse and collaborator, the legendary Madame Bricard, “drenched and preserved in the artifice of fashion to the point where men were her slaves.” A young Yves Saint Laurent is glossed over while Coco Chanel — “that delicious 80-year-plus Witch of the West” — is described in hilarious detail. Surrounded by tyrannical divas, lethal vendeuses and “the star-spangled bitches” of fashion, Bill appears totally happy.

Authenticity is an obsession that runs throughout the book. Bill Cunningham delights in yanking back the curtain on the vicious rituals of copying that infiltrated the Paris salons of the postwar years. He discloses his own struggle — it reads like a milliner’s version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” — to avoid the dominant influences of the day and create original work. When he leaves hats and becomes a reporter, plagiarists and designers who are resting on their laurels are called out. He judges fashion based on one simple criterion: What happens when frock meets client? Anybody can dress a rail-thin model. It takes talent and originality to transform real, average bodies into objects of fascination.

So what did Bill know? Over time he became a fashion sage. At some point in the late 20th century, I recall asking him if he had any insights into the current scene. The cloistered fashion universe had loosened its stays and was rapidly transforming into a chaotic global spectator sport. Celebrities were infiltrating. Trends were arriving and not disappearing. Order was being replaced by chaos. “Oh, young fellah,” he replied, sounding like Jimmy Stewart playing Bill Cunningham, “fashion is a mirror, reflecting the culture. The culture is chaotic, so fashion is just doing its job.”

“Fashion Climbing,” with its truncated timeline, leaves the reader gasping for more. Bill remained at the center of the fashion circus until his death. In addition to his appreciation for grandes dames, he became a devotee of the unconventional, including punk, vogueing and drag, and designers like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and the Belgian and Japanese avant-gardists. His visionary approach to street photography became the lingua franca of social media. His observations about fashion and culture sharpened over time. I can only hope there’s another installment lurking in his archives to give us further insights into the much-missed Bill and the devilish fire that raged hotter as the years went by.

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