Cunningham’s toppers were always a bit over the top even in his own eyes, though his greatest success came with a foldable, packable black nylon hat that debuted in 1955 and remained in his catalog for several seasons. He also found the simple beret to be a reliable staple of his collections. He initially dismissed the style as too pedestrian, but finally relented, realizing it was “the equivalent of the basic black suit or dress.”
It was his unrestrained straw beach hats, however, that feed his creative soul. These included a large straw “octopus” design encircled with tentacles and another hat that he felt resembled a portable cabana with feathers sticking straight out of its top and a ring strips of celluloid (plastic) that reached the floor. By the early 1960s, he had moved on to sleeker, Mod silhouettes that he likened to space ships.
By that time, however, Cunningham could see that hats were on their way out as a daily accessory; he closed up shop and soon after began covering fashion for Women’s Wear Daily.
(The book’s black-and-white photos let readers see young Cunningham and his creations; unfortunately, there are no captions.)
One of the key parts of Fashion Climbing is when Cunningham attended the 1963 fashion shows, taking readers with him as he crouched on crowded staircases or lurked behind plants while viewing the collections. “Covering the European openings for a newspaper is the fashion experience of a lifetime,” Cunningham admits, but it’s also test of endurance, patience and wiliness; a world of underpaid, harried staffers, treacherous buyers and cloying media.