Cintra Wilson is a New York based fashion writer and cultural critic best known for her contributions to the New York Times Critical Shopper column. Her writing, often full of witty commentary and humorous sociological insight, has been featured on a number of websites and publications including Salon.com, Elle.com and the Hartford Advocate. Currently, Wilson is currently working on a new book “Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling the Belt Regions to Expose America’s Fashion Destiny.”
What have you been up to since your departure from the New York Times’ Critical Shopper column?
I’m still technically a contributor for the New York Times, but now I write features. For example, I just wrote an article about Chaz Bono for Sunday Styles. I’ve been traveling a lot, doing fashion research for the book I’m writing and I’ve been working on articles for other magazines like ELLE. I’m also currently working on a piece for the Atlantic. And, I still write my political article, the C-Word, for a bunch of weekly papers in Connecticut.
Can we expect to read more on retail from you in the future?
It’s an interesting conundrum. I am not exactly a writer that advertisers are dying to see in print ; I’m too honest and therefore unpredictable. If I really like a place I’m writing about, it’s golden: they get a nice bump in revenue, everyone’s happy. If don’t like a place, though, it can be painful for the business and, by extension, for the paper running their ads. Anyone who runs my articles has to be willing to not please people all the time, and to risk losing advertising sometimes. That’s a hard thing to commit to. If you’re a critical voice, you have to be critical sometimes. Truth can be expensive.
Have you been having withdrawl from “shopping”?
I enjoyed that gig more than anything else I’ve ever done for a living, but I was starting to chafe against the structure a little bit. It was really great for my development as a writer for a long time, but by the second time I got the axe, I was beginning to feel a little cramped by certain aspects of it. I’ve been wanting to write more about culture and less about cardigans.
How is your new book coming along, “Fear and Clothing”? Can you tell us a bit about the title and what to expect from the book?
Well, the title is obviously a reference to Hunter S. Thompson, whose work – even later in his career, when he was barely functional – I always loved. My whole title is “Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America’s Fashion Destiny.” Hunter was always going into unusual situations and trying to understand and experience them fully and subjectively. He would look at the situation as a means of trying to see something much larger and more intangible, for instance, ‘the American Dream.’ I’ve always tried to emulate that gestalt, New Journalism style. It’s not a good technique if you need to churn out something predictable, and if you don’t have the space to fall on your fanny occasionally. I hate to displease or overwork an editor I love. It’s lucky to find one who believes in you, so I try hard to be consistent. But you need freedom to experiment. You need a really long leash if you want to get to that fast, purple, rhythmic, adjective-laden, strange-new-insight-based writing that only comes when you’re really psyched about something and free to express it.
You’ve written several other books, but never on fashion before. What was the inspiration for this book?
Writing about fashion for the Times, I really began to see that fashion is a language. It’s a vocabulary of references. The return of a particular shoulder pad suggests certain moods have returned to provoke certain irritations between the sexes. They can be indicative of how women are being regarded sexually, and/or in the workforce. Certain shapes and lines historically suggest certain things are happening to the economy. Higher hemlines can suggest there is more violence happening in other parts of the world. Fashion is like a crystal ball that picks up on everything and you can read a ton of personal, psychological, societal, political information through it, if you have some idea of what you’re looking at, and what these shapes indicate. Every wardrobe is a little autobiography. I think it’s fascinating.
You’ve written extensively on politics and fashion, how would you compare and contrast the people in both industries.
It is funny to talk about politics as an industry, but today it is an industry. Obviously, fashion people are flighty creative butterflies, driven by aesthetics and trying to concoct new forms of beauty. I have always thought that the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria is a good representation of that type of unleashed design mind: exhausting all his resources to build loopy white castles filled with shiny walls and lakes full of swan boats, to the point where he neglected all his serious duties. He was living in his own fantasy bubble and fashion can be a totally absorbing world in that way.
On the other hand, political people are much more down and dirty and mired in the secrets and the heavy metal machinery of the world. Washington people really think they’re the only humans who know anything, or are doing anything important. In a way, they’re right. If you’re in or around politics, your job involves serious decisions that are being made about other people’s lives. You can figure every pinstripe on Capitol Hill represents about 10 dead bodies in one way or anothe