Book Review—Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style by Cintra Wilson

What happens when a punk-inspired, all-black-wearing Brooklynite undertakes a wide ranging study of American dress?  You end up with a humorous, and often snarky, assessment of Americans’ love of pastels, polyester, and malls.  The book’s big message: break loose from the expected. Clothing is essential to creating a sense of self, so why look the same as everyone else?

Fashion writer Cintra Wilson takes readers on a guided tour of the US, heading to the West (California, Wyoming, and Utah), the Midwest (Kansas and Iowa), the South (Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida) and the power corridor of Washington DC and New York. Her research methods are original.  She takes a sharp look around her and also visits upscale resale shops and downscale thrift stores.  Her conclusions are hardly exhaustive, but she has a keen eye for the regional differences. In what she calls the “Chastity Belt” of Salt Lake City, polyester confections reign.  In the “Sand Belt” of Florida, skimpy outfits prevail.

Older women don’t come off unscathed.  She lights into the wealthy matrons of Miami who “own too much gold to care if you think their dresses are too short for their age; they are the type who contends that the only good iguana is a pink belt.” (112) The overly tucked and lifted women of Los Angeles appear to be “extensive circuitry systems covered in latex.”(141) She concludes that the huge hats worn by pampered wealthy women at the Kentucky Derby look like exposed genitalia.  But some of the older set get a nod of approval, like a grocery shopper in a beret and a Fair Isle sweater from Park City, Utah, whose simple outfit is rated “timeless, sharp, elegant, practical.”(81)

What differentiates good clothes from bad clothes in Wilson’s view? Certainly not money.  High end fashion doesn’t win much praise. Instead, Wilson is inspired by a kind of do-it-yourself aesthetic.  Her own favorite clothes are thrifted. She praises any look, no matter how outrageous, that appears to come from the wearer’s personal idea of beauty.

So why read this book? First of all, it is very funny.  It also reminds us that the US is not a single fashion universe, despite the sameness of our mall landscape.  Finally, Wilson makes an eloquent case for finding your own fashion language, something that is within anyone’s means.  You just need to figure out what you want to say—and find a good thrift store.

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6 Responses to Book Review—Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style by Cintra Wilson

  1. Juliana @ Urban Simplicity says:

    That book went straight into my amazon cart! Can’t wait to read it for myself. Have you read her book on celebrity? That looks intriguing as well.

  2. eimear says:

    love that sentence ‘the only good iguana is a pink belt’….. I do find it interesting the different demographics and ‘fashion’. I am generalising a lot here, but when I first started crocheting about 10 years ago and on ravelry, I used find that american crochet seemed to favour large motifs and large hooks, English crochet was a much plainer affair and rarely went beyond a basic shell, and Russian crochet was tiny hooks and tiny motifs, and more about showing off skill and endless patience….

  3. Blanca says:

    Ok, you have made me buy this one. Thanks for bringing such interesting topics forward.

  4. Lizzie says:

    You’ve convinced me that, yes, I do need another book in my reading queue!

  5. JS says:

    I remember when she wrote the New York Times’s “Critical Shopper” column. She was pretty eccentric.

    “Wilson, a freelancer, gave the paper a bit of a headache with her JCPenney review, in which she called the store’s mannequins “obese” and lamented not being able to find a size 2 on the racks for herself. But she weathered the backlash and went on to bring us thoughtful commentary on the scary jackets at Lilly Pulitzer and saving money at Isabel Marant by shopping for the same sorts of things at the Army/Navy surplus store instead.”

  6. I have this book, and I’ve read it twice – it’s a fascinating read! I was amazed how Cintra identifies how groups and cultures wear their identities and values, whether they intend to or not. I look at that now, wherever I go. I look at how people dress. It also made me look at how my own style preferences have evolved through my life, and how they come from my personal history, my family’s collective history and how I non-verbally broadcast this to the world.

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