Frisky Reads: Cintra Wilson, Fear And Clothing & The Politics Of Fashion

Cintra Wilson, former New York Times critical shopper and author of Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style, wants to help you get laid. She won’t accompany you to a bar or pluck a rando out of the swamp of your Tinder matches — but, as she told the rapt, black-clad audience at her book reading last night in Brooklyn, she will help you figure out what to wear.

“I will get you laid if I buy you a pair of glasses or a hat,” she said to a chorus of appreciative laughter. The assembled crowd didn’t necessarily need the help. But one look at Wilson and you just know — she’s probably right.

Her columns are intricate presents to be unwrapped with fastidious care, the sentences brash and loud. Her prose never assumes that the person reading the work is dumb. She is bracingly specific in her descriptions. Fear and Clothing is an astute and funny look at the fashion mores across our country, and her approach is a lot more humble and thoughtful than you might expect from the woman who once inspired controversy with her critical review of a Manhattan J. C. Penney. Instead of gliding into Middle America and tearing down the provincial garb of the natives waddling in and out of Walmart or rodeos, she approaches every single place she visits with a willingness to learn. Fashion, she argues, will tell you all you need to know about the politics and culture of a place.

Wilson travels to D.C. and immerses herself in the political power-drag of the elite in our nation’s capital. She grabs a friend and heads to the Kentucky Derby to marvel at the hats. She wade into the strange soup of extreme desperation and actual talent that is found at both the Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah, and in fame-seeking Los Angeles. Her point? You can tell almost everything you need to know by the way a person’s dressed.

Fashion, she argues, is contextual. Like every other nibble of culture we consume, from books to television to Vines, context is everything. That polartec pullover and those XTRATUF boots you wear to go to the grocery store and then a bar in Homer, Alaska, makes an entirely different statement in New York City. Like everything else, clothing does not exist in a vacuum.

The clothes we chose to put on our bodies are reflections of ourselves, of course. Regardless of current trends, you know intrinsically what works for you when you put something on and look in the mirror.  You can choose to live by the rules, which are nothing more than arbitrary bullet points, or you can dress for the surge of confidence that come from putting on something you really like. Does it really matter if that weird shirt with the lizards on it isn’t on-trend with what stomped down the runway at Fashion Week? Not really. The clothes you wear work because you’re wearing them. You chose it for a reason. Wearing that shirt with a pair of shorts while slumped on the couch in front of a “Real Housewives” marathon is just as valid as pairing it with ripped jeans and sandals. Those versions of you, however different they are, are still you.

“Taste” as a construct doesn’t really matter. The act of getting dressed every morning — stepping into the same pants, digging around for a clean shirt — is an opening to a silent conversation that will continue all day. The clothes you wear should be aspirational, Wilson says, because no matter what, they reflect how you want to be perceived.

“You never want to wear who you are now,” Wilson told the audience. “You want to wear who you’re going to be.”

Cintra Wilson’s Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style is in bookstores now.