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.