My Childhood in the Closet With My Mother’s Clothing

An excerpt from Bill Cunningham’s posthumous memoir

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty

MyMy first remembrance of fashion was the day my mother caught me parading around our middle-class Catholic home in a lace-curtain Irish suburb of Boston. There I was, 4 years old, decked out in my sister’s prettiest dress. Women’s clothes were always much more stimulating to my imagination. That summer day, in 1933, as my back was pinned to the dining room wall, my eyes spattering tears all over the pink organdy full-skirted dress, my mother beat the hell out of me and threatened every bone in my uninhibited body if I wore girls’ clothes again.

My dear parents gathered all their Bostonian reserve and decided the best cure was to hide me from any artistic or fashionable life. This wasn’t hard in suburban Boston; a drab puritanical life prevailed, brightened only by Christmas, Easter, the Thanksgiving Day parade, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and the maypole costume party in kindergarten. My life was lived for each of these special days when I could express all the fancy thoughts in my head.

Of course, Christmas was the blowout of the year, and I started wrapping the packages months before anyone dreamed of another Christmas. The tree ornaments were packed away in the attic, where I usually dusted them off with a trial run in midsummer and prepared a plan of decoration for the coming season.

When Christmas came, I must have redecorated the tree a half dozen times in the short week it was left to stand, and when New Year’s Day arrived and the tree was to be thrown out on the street, a deep depression usually set upon me, as I tucked all the glamour, the shiny tinsel, away for another eternally long year, and only the thought of Valentine’s Day with its lace-trimmed displays of love made life bearable.

There I was, 4 years old, decked out in my sister’s prettiest dress.

Easter Sunday was always a high point. I can remember every one of Mother’s hats, which were absolute knockouts to my eyes, but when I look back today, they were all very conservative. My two sisters and brother Jack (who was all sports-minded) and I were outfitted in new clothes for Easter Sunday. This was the dandy day of my life. I can’t remember a thing the priest said during Mass, but I sure as hell could describe every interesting fashion worn by the 200 or so ladies, and for the following few Sundays I kept an accurate record of which ladies wore their Easter Sunday flower corsages longest, emerging from the refrigerators for the Sunday airing.

The next excitement I can remember was the maypole costume party where I managed, much to my conservative family’s embarrassment, to be a crepe paper pansy, violet, or daffodil. I always had a ball playing make-believe, and usually got hell when my mother got her hands on me, as I’d play with the girls, mainly because their costumes were the most beautiful roses. The boys were bees and caterpillars, which didn’t interest me a bit.

Summers were a fashion desert. Our small beach house on the south shore of Boston allowed nothing but bathing suits and T-shirts, and lots of horrible sunburn on the miles of salty beach. No one ever wore anything colorful or gay. Each Sunday’s church was the only adventure, as my brother and sisters and I were wrapped in starched white clothes and chalk-white shoes. During the reading of the Gospel, I eyed every woman and decided who was the most elegant. It was a wonderful game, and by the end of each summer, I would produce my list of the women at the beach whom I thought most exciting.

GGoing back to school was really the monster for me. I couldn’t have cared less about reading, writing, and arithmetic — and they cared much less for me! It was only through the grace of God and the teachers, who didn’t want to have me around another year, that I finished each school year. The only class I remember was a weekly one-hour art session where the most delightful, slightly eccentric teacher would read Winnie-the-Pooh and tell us about Mrs. Jack Gardner’s Venetian palace, set in Boston’s Back Bay. This was my hour of pure dream and fantasy. Of course, I immediately fell passionately in love with Mrs. Jack Gardner and her gilded palace, and to this very day, she is my inspiration.

I knew my destiny was to create beautiful women and place them in fantastic surroundings.

Life really began for me on my first visit to Mrs. Jack’s. That marvelous art teacher took the class to view what she called a “Renaissance splendor.” It was the opening of the doors of paradise for me, and there was no stopping my desire to create a world of exotic beauty. No matter how many times my mother caught me wearing my sister’s first long party dress, which was peach satin — and I know I wore it more than she did — I knew my destiny was to create beautiful women and place them in fantastic surroundings.

After school was the most fun, as I would hide in my room and build model airplanes and theatrical stage sets. Each month I would concoct a special display for the season, and I was forever talking the girls next door into putting on a dramatic play where I made all the crepe paper costumes and usually ended up wearing the highest crown or the longest train of purple, trimmed with my dad’s notepaper ermine tails.

Mother’s wedding gown, covered with embroidery and pearls and tiny satin roses, was the hidden treasure that I was constantly unpacking for another look. Actually, it was the only beautiful thing in the house.

RRadio was a huge influence, to which I give credit for my strong imagination. Instead of doing school homework, I would be listening to Stella Dallas, Helen Trent, and my favorite, Helen Hayes, who led the glamorous New York life. In my imagination I dressed each of these soap opera ladies, designing for them all sorts of fancy clothes.

As kids, we weren’t allowed to go to the movies except on Saturday afternoons, when some rough-and-tumble cowboy affair would scramble across the screen. I couldn’t have cared less; I was just itching to get back to the movies on a Saturday night instead and see Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, I never made it, and these movies remained totally unknown to me until the late 1950s, when I saw them in revival.

In later years, after-school jobs were part of my upbringing, which I enjoyed very much, as they paid me money that I promptly spent on something colorful and pretty at the local Woolworth’s five-and-dime. Shoveling long driveways of snow allowed me to indulge in elaborate gifts for my mother and sisters; I would shovel snow all day long just to get my frozen hands on some money to buy beautiful things. One time I bought the supplies to make a hat. It was a real dilly — a great big cabbage rose hung over the right eye, and all sorts of ribbons tied at the back of the neck. My mother nearly collapsed in shame when she saw it.

I was a newspaper delivery boy at 12, and each morning got up at five thirty to pedal my bike around the neighborhood and collect five bucks at the end of a week. After the first month, I saved my money, slipped into the city of Boston on my first trip, and bought a dress, which I thought was the most chic thing in town. It was black crepe and bias cut, and had three red hearts on the right shoulder. As usual, Mother nearly had a fit. Now I was buying her clothes. Her reply was, “Think what the neighbors will say!” These were famous last words with my mother and dad.

My family had a whispering thought that I’d be a priest. And all this attraction to feminine fashion didn’t help their hope. But what Irish Catholic family didn’t dream of its eldest son being a priest? I always knew I wasn’t priesthood material as I was sewing away from some devilish fire, flaming inside the deepest corners of my soul.

The paper route made life worthwhile, giving me the loot to indulge in a little fashion fantasy, and as fast as I’d buy the newest styles, Mother would return them. I would counteract with another dress or fake diamond bracelet. My next job was delivering clothes for Mr. Kaplan, the local tailor. This was the beginning of my understanding of what made beautiful clothes.

Here I learned all about the construction of coats and suits, the fine technique of pressing and shaping. I also earned more money, and my two sisters soon fell under my assault of buying clothes, always making secret trips to the city and visiting the fashionable stores. My favorite was Jays on Temple Place. The facade of the terra-cotta-colored building was decorated with silhouetted ladies sitting on French chairs, admiring themselves in the style of 1910. Inside, the smell of perfume and champagne and wall-to-wall carpet made me want to buy everything in sight. They had the best-looking shopping bags in Boston, with a silhouetted lady and the name Jays giving the carrier great distinction. Of course, I was proud as a peacock, carrying the package home to my middle-class neighborhood. (I was the worst snob in town.)

By the time I was 12, the family was in a state of frenzy over how they could knock this artistic nature out of me. Finally, it was decided that a trade school, where my hands could be the learners, was the only solution for a safe future. I enrolled at Mechanic Arts High School, where I learned carpentry. My spindle-legged tables were a howling success and caused a great deal of hell-raising with the people who wanted plain, sturdy-legged tables. I just couldn’t resist putting the wood on a lathe and making all the fanciest turns I knew how.

My first six months’ salary went to buying a pair of these silver foxes for my mother.

The classes were anything but fashionable. They consisted of sheet-metal work and a blacksmith’s shop where we had the best fun. What I couldn’t do with the blowtorch and anvil! Everything I made had curlicues and twists . . . I suppose you might call it Irish baroque. Along with all those shop classes came algebra, which I could never figure out, and history, which I was terrific at, from a costume point of view. I couldn’t recite a word of Shakespeare, but I could sure draw a costume for every character in the plays.

What made these school years livable was an after-school job at Jordan Marsh Company, the city’s largest department store. At 2:30pm, I was out of the school prison, trotting down fashionable Boylston Street with more enthusiasm than I’d shown all day, observing all the windows of the most fashionable shops in Boston.

A special delight was sizing up the august Beacon Hill dowagers who would be going to tea at the Ritz Hotel. I often dallied outside its doors just to get a glimpse of some fascinating women. Jordan Marsh was across the Boston Common, in the commercial section of town, surrounded by Filene’s and the other big stores that just swallowed me up.

At Jordan’s, I was a stock boy in the ready-to-wear departments and had the time of my life pushing the big carts through the store. My favorite departments were better dresses, furs, and handbags. The store had an elegant quality that disappeared after my days there in the early 1940s. A grand stairway curved up through the central rotunda; mahogany showcases gave a proper Bostonian attitude to the high-ceilinged main floor.

I wasn’t there but a few weeks before I knew the best merchandise from the plain, everyday stuff. I was always finagling a deal until I got to push the racks with the best dresses down to their department, where I carefully scrutinized every one I took off.

I would unload the stock truck of the handbag department like I was unveiling the emperor’s jewels, making sure I set the bag on the counter so customers felt they had just discovered something they had never seen before. If the salesgirls didn’t make a few sales during the performance, I was crushed. The store’s glove department didn’t interest me, but its buyer wore the most exciting hats. They were tall Lilly Daché turbans, the likes of which few Bostonian women had ever seen. They had a sense of drama.

This buyer also wore the first silver foxes without legs, tails, and heads I had seen. It was a knockout when everyone else in Boston was cherishing all those legs, tails, and heads. As a matter of fact, for years they continued to wear it like that in Boston and didn’t think of cutting them off.

My first six months’ salary went to buying a pair of these silver foxes for my mother. She hardly ever wore them, feeling they were too daring and showy.

AtAt this time I started covering myself in outrageous bright shirts and ties. I bought the first fake-fur-lined trench coat with the biggest fur collar I could find, and nearly drove the family crazy with shame, wearing it on the first cool day of September. I just couldn’t wait to get it on my back and parade into school — although I almost fainted from the heat in the rush-hour crowd in the trolley car. Clothes were everything to me, and I think I spent seven days a week deciding what I’d wear the next week.

Life at Jordan’s was fabulous and had they given diplomas, I would have graduated with honors. That said, I almost got canned at one point. It was during the parade at the end of the Second World War, and I felt the store should do something in the way of a big display. Of course, they had already hung the world’s largest American flag over the Washington Street facade of the building, which made Filene’s flag look like a postage stamp. But I thought I should add some of my own flair, so I went through all the men’s rooms in the store, taking the rolls of toilet tissue and stashing them up on the roof of the store, at the corner of Washington and Summer Streets, the busiest intersection in Boston, where the biggest crowd was sure to assemble.

After collecting dozens and dozens of rolls, I began to unroll them over the heads of the marching soldiers. It was an instant success, as the white rolls whipped down in huge white streaks! The crowd below went wild with delight as the unrolled ends bounced off the heads of the cops. Within fifteen minutes the intersection was a blizzard of toilet paper, which became a spectacular tangled mess in all of Filene’s flagpoles — it took them months to unwind it.

In my enthusiasm for creating a living display, I had completely blocked the window view of the store’s president, Mr. Mitton, which was right under where I was standing. I had hardly unrolled the last of the paper, when the hands of store detectives, executives, and Boston cops hauled me before the exasperated president.

From FASHION CLIMBING by Bill Cunningham, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by The Bill Cunningham Foundation LLC.

Iconic NY Times photographer Bill Cunningham was the creative force behind On the Street & Evening Hours. His memoir FASHION CLIMBING was published posthumously

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