Reading Note:
This Man’s Army
20 September 2018

They really ought to make a movie about Bill Cunningham’s tour in the Army, circa 1950. It’s described in “A Helmet Covered in Flowers,” the fourth chapter of his posthumous memoir, Fashion Climbing. You wouldn’t think that this would have been a good time for the young man, given the book’s opening episode, in which the four year-old Bill’s mother beats the crap out of him when she catches him wearing one of his sister’s dresses, but in fact it is a study in the millinery possibility of armed service life. I don’t mean just that Cunningham made hats while he was stationed at La Rochelle — he did, and more. But he also seems to have approached the paltry opportunities for joie de vivre on offer as so many scraps to be transformed into a jolly chapeau. 

It helped, of course, that there was something surreptitious about the La Rochelle operation; the men were instructed not to wear their uniforms off base. Nor does there seem to have been much of a base. Whatever he was supposed to be doing, Cunningham talked the commanding officer into letting him use a bus to transport GIs around France, touring all the sights of interest (not museums) at low prices and with door-to-door service — at the bordellos in Nice, anyway. Then the commanding officer’s wife asked Cunningham to teach his craft to the officers’ wives, another hit. Because his fellow soldiers were convinced that he was related to the top brass, they respected, shall we say, his dignity. Furloughs were devoted to meeting the great fashion designers in Paris. Positively a romp!

Fashion Climbing, which appears to have been written some time ago and then set aside, is time capsule that bursts open with the atmospheric redolence of New York in the Fifties. As anyone who has seen Richard Press’s documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, is aware, the man had a peculiar way of talking, as befitted a lithe but sturdy middle-class Catholic from Boston who knew his own mind without any help from Harvard (which he attended for about five minutes) but who also loved nothing more than a costume ball. His slang is purely period. So is his reticence. In general, names are not named, and nor is the author’s intimate life ever discussed, ever; there is no evidence that such a thing existed. The immense sophistication that would guide his lens during his great years at the Times is varnished with a blend of hayseed and baked beans. 

Regardless of any love life, Cunningham preferred austere circumstances to conventional comforts. He found luxury oppressive. And yet nothing brought him as much joy as beautifully dressed women who enjoyed being beautifully dressed, enjoying their well-upholstered lives. His many references to exotic birds provides a key to reconciling this dissonance. Bill Cunningham was arguably the curator/keeper of the world’s most fabulous aviary, where gorgeous wingless creatures hopped from perch to perch.

There are lots of intriguing photographs in Fashion Climbing; it’s a pity that they’re not captioned. Nor is it clear who selected them. Can we look forward to a full-dress biography?

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