“Style is the collision point between our fantasies of who we are, the larger realities we live with and the way we are perceived by others,” writes Cintra Wilson in her book, “Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style,” out today. The writer, who penned the Critical Shopper column for The New York Times from 2008 to 2011, takes a tour through the closets of America, from San Francisco (“The Macramé Belt”) to Kansas (“The Gun Belt”) to Miami (“The Sand Belt”), dissecting the clothing choices of the inhabitants along the way. The underlying theme is what she calls “fashion determinism,” or the ability of style to change your life. And it’s all written in the incisive, vivid language that brought her such adoration — and sometimes criticism — at the Times. Here, WWD speaks with the author about her latest project.
WWD: How did you get the idea for “Fear and Clothing?”
Cintra Wilson: This book was a natural extension of Critical Shopper, and I actually quote [the articles] pretty extensively in it. I felt like there was more substance there to the topic of fashion as anthropology than I really got to get my rocks off about when I was at the Times. [Fashion] was a completely new topic for me and I didn’t have any idea how rich a topic it was until I really dove into it. I tried to turn down the job when I was first offered it because I didn’t think I was qualified at all. And then I was really surprised when I found out how much you were able to extrapolate from fashion. There’s a huge psychological component to fashion and also kind of an underlying, unspoken, subconscious political component, which was sort of what I was chasing in the book. I pitched the book with this wacky idea: Is political economy visible all the way down to local people’s underwear drawers?
WWD: What was your research process like?
C.W.: I traveled as much as I could for probably two and half years. [Often] there was an event I wanted to see, like I really wanted to see opening day at Ole Miss because I knew that the girls get really dressed up for it in really particular ways and I wanted to give [the reader] sort of indigenous tribal fashion events as they unfold. I realized that as a coastal person — I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and then I moved to New York and I’d only otherwise lived in L.A. for a year — I really had no knowledge whatsoever of the entire middle of the country. And especially after the Obama election, I’m like who are these red state people?! And what do they want? Why are they so different than me? The divide can’t be that intense. I mean what unifies us, what separates us?
WWD: Fashion people don’t really think about the industry outside of New York, London, Milan and Paris.
C.W.: I think it’s important to say that in talking about fashion consciousness, there’s not anybody I don’t think who’s totally fashion unconscious, even these tech dweebs who run around in Dockers and polo shirts. I mean, they pick those out very carefully even if they are wearing something that they would describe as being antifashion, they’re still really persnickety about it. People are very conscious and selective of what they wear, no matter what they’re wearing.
WWD: Even though you only recently started writing about fashion, was it always an interest?
C.W.: I was very excited about fashion. I think when I was about 14 I got my first fake ID and I was going to clubs, you know, like club-kid clubs. And San Francisco had a really vibrant fashion scene, in terms of kids getting dressed for three hours to go out on a Saturday night and dance. It was the height of New Wave, so everyone had really tall raccoon hair and pointy boots — I mean, it was an extravaganza, it was a great spectacle. I had friends that would get dressed with me and we’d be totally excited all week thinking about what outfit we were going to assemble. You know, it was very transforming. I had no idea how important [fashion] would be to me this late in life. I’m sort of intellectually 17 again in a certain way.
WWD: What’s your take on the current state of fashion in America?
C.W.: I kind of think if you have personal style you can do no wrong. I’ve always been a boundary pusher on every level — the words I choose, the pants I wear, everything. And so I take reckless risks all the time, but it’s part of the permission that I think people need to give themselves to discover what their style really is. It’s so obvious when people do, and it’s really obvious when people don’t [give themselves permission] by the same token. Like office wear is purposefully dulling down the content of your psyche. It betrays very little about who you are. But if anyone wears anything vaguely interesting they’re revealing something about themselves. The people who are blazing some kind of beautiful image on your corneas, you know that that’s who they are. That’s the real signifiers of their being, and that’s got content.