Two memorable Christmas gifts for style-lovers

— by Antonia Cunliffe

One is an unfinished manuscript discovered after the author’s death, the other a best-selling blockbuster from a former First Lady but both memoirs make great last-minute Christmas gifts for style-loving friends.

Fashion Climbing – A New York Life by Bill Cunningham (Vintage Publishing/ Penguin Press, 2018)

Bill Cunningham (1929 to 2016) was a significant American fashion photographer and pioneer of street style photography, renowned for his weekly columns in the New York Times, ‘On the Street’ and ‘Evening Hours’. In 2010, a documentary Bill Cunningham New York was made to celebrate this modest man and his unique approach to fashion. When he died a manuscript was found among his possessions in the filing cabinets in which he stored his negatives. Whether he intended this for publication one will never know. Fortunately it has been transformed posthumously into this book Fashion Climbing. And a great read and find it is, too.

I was familiar with the older Bill Cunningham often seen hanging out on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, in Manhattan (now named Bill Cunningham Corner), recording interestingly dressed passers-by for his column; in his blue workman’s jacket with a battered Nikon slung around his neck and his rickety bicycle parked nearby. What I learned reading this book was his journey to this chosen career and his absolute love of beauty and beautiful clothing.

He grew up in suburban Boston in a religious, Irish-Catholic family. In the opening chapter Cunningham recounts being beaten by his mother as a four-year-old for dressing up in his sister’s party frock. This is a telling incident. As a school student he worked in a high-end department store and details his pleasure in examining the clothing he encountered. This was his art school. In his late teens he set off for New York, living initially with relatives to work in the Fifth Avenue store Bonwit Teller. Eventually becoming a self-taught milliner, prioritising buying materials for his creations, over eating. The modest lifestyle he lived was possible in the Manhattan of the 1950s. Later he lived in a very basic artists’ studio in Carnegie Hall Tower with shared bathrooms and no cooking facilities. I recall this room from the film, his mattress wedged in among metal filing cabinets.

What Bill Cunningham really loved was beautiful clothing. He had a wonderful eye for colour and construction. ” I don’t really see people – I see clothes”, he said. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in fashion and for the flavour in the accompanying photographs of him as a smiling young man of a byegone era in New York. A time when one could make one’s way to the city from the provinces and living frugally create a life for oneself doing what one wanted. Bill Cunningham was an original who chose beauty over affluence. Fashion Climbing is a very worthwhile read (available HERE).



Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown Publishing, 2018)

Michelle Obama is everywhere right now. Numerous glossy magazine covers celebrate the former First Lady striking out on her own with the launch of the memoir Becoming, the best-selling book of 2018. ‘No longer a plus one. This time around, the First Lady comes first.’ As Jess Cartner-Morley of the Guardian put it so well.

A fan of Michelle Obama during her time as First Lady (2009 to 2016) due to her manifest intelligence, strength of character and sense of style, I was curious to learn more of her rise to such prominence and found the early years most interesting. The first section ‘Becoming Me’ discusses Michelle LaVaughn Robinson’s youth in a modest African American family on the Southside of Chicago (her father worked for the city council and her mother stayed at home to look after the two kids). She worked hard at school and achieved the grades necessary to enter Princeton University in the footsteps of her older brother Craig. Going on to gain admission to top law school Harvard.

Employed as a lawyer in Chicago, she was asked to mentor a young colleague Barack Obama. ‘I checked out his photo. A less-than-flattering, poorly lit head shot of a guy with a big smile and a whiff of geekiness — and remained unmoved.’ The second part ‘Becoming Us’ charts the couple’s relationship, having two daughters Malia and Sasha and entering into public life. As Barack rose through the political ranks to become the first African American President, Michelle Obama describes her reservations about politics and belief that he probably wouldn’t get voted in, anyway.

The third part ‘Becoming More’ describes the family preparing for their new life in the White House the first family of colour to do so. Joined by her mother Marion Robinson, to help with the childcare. Initially uncertain about her role as First Lady, Michelle Obama espoused the causes of education for girls beyond high school both nationally and internationally. Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn are two of her campaigns. The other one was Let’s Move to encourage a better diet and more activity to combat childhood obesity. Part of the South Lawn at the White House was converted into a vegetable patch and local schoolchildren invited to help with the gardening.

The success of this autobiography is due to the powerful and well-written narrative. Hers is a voice with authenticity at a time of widespread fake news. I would highly recommend getting your hands on a copy and settling down for a good read this Christmas (available HERE).



For more Christmas gift ideas check out the inaugural That’s Not My Age guidePlease note affiliate links in this post may generate commission.


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