Born in 1929 in an Irish suburb of Boston, Bill Cunningham dropped out of Harvard and moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion. In 1948, he started his hat design business, ‘William J’ ; his hats were featured in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. In the 1960s the business closed and he became a fashion journalist and photographer.
In 1978, he joined the New York Times. In later years, Cunningham could regularly be seen on his bicycle, in his French workman’s jacket, photographing fashion trends for his columns ‘On the Street’ and ‘Evening Hours’. He was the subject of the acclaimed documentary Bill Cunningham, New York (2010) in which Anna Wintour confided that ‘we all dress for Bill’.
Bill Cunningham died in 2016, aged 87. He had always lived modestly, amidst ‘William J’ hatboxes and the filing cabinets housing his photographic archive. The prepared typescript of Fashion Climbing was found among his effects.