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.
As much as I appreciate the sincerity and empowerment behind style campaigns like #fuckflattering or “I wear what I want”, I almost always find the idea disingenuous. We don’t always wear what we want, because of various extenuating forces, and if we do, we’re seldom aware of the message we’re sending out to others via our choice of garments.
That’s not a bad thing – more power to the person who can go through life giving no shits about how they present themselves. But for most people, their first impression of others is intrinsically linked with appearance, especially clothing. Which is to say – every outfit is a complex story about the wearer, a story with a different plot based on who’s interpreting the information provided.
This is the basic premise of Cintra Wilson’s Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style in which the fashion and culture writer, known for her witty, occasionally caustic snark, travels across the US, documenting regional style. From the colourful clothes in Miami to the all-black enclaves of artists and other alternative types in coastal towns like New York and San Francisco, to the power dressing of DC or the celebratory, over the top hats at the Kentucky derby, Wilson examines the cultural factors that create definitive local style.
Wilson’s knowledge and experience with fashion comes from a long-running column at the New York Times in which she visited and reviewed high end clothing stores from the perspective of someone who could seldom afford to shop there. She appreciates workmanship and quality but questions a lot of the pretence involved.
Much of Fear and Clothing has a semi-autobiographical angle – Wilson came out of San Francisco’s punk scene and remains a black-clad freak (one of us!) to this day. Thus her perspective on the mainstream fashion of Salt Lake City is pretty close to what I or any of my peers might feel when confronted with a plane-load of pastel clad blonde people with doodads on their heads… that she gets the stink-eye from staff at her hotel for her all-black outfit is a familiar narrative to anyone who has ever intentionally avoided mainstream fashion in a conservative setting.
Critics have called Fear and Clothing mean spirited, but I think that Wilson is not intending to be hurtful with her assessments, just honest and forthright. The truth is – we all look funny to one another, and we all have a hard time imagining what it might be like to dress like that. And as anyone who has every been harassed for their style choices can confirm, we all make judgements (good, bad or otherwise) about people based on what they wear.
Misfits will find themselves reflected in the pages of Fear and Clothing, as well anyone who has ever cast a critical eye to mainstream trends. While many regional styles are based on practicality over fashion – the boots and hats of farmers in the Midwest, for example – the rest of us get dressed with other influences at play.
My favourite part of Fear and Clothing is the final chapter in which Wilson espouses a genuine “wear what you want” attitude. But paired with a generous dose of flying your freak flag. Because even at their oddest, weirdly dressed people are far more interesting than blandly dressed people. And if every outfit we put together is a story, we can rewrite that story every day by the choices we make in front of the closet. Plenty of people get up in the morning and get dressed asking – who do I want to be today?
If style is 99% attitude, then we can control first impressions simply by how we carry ourselves and how we think about ourselves and the world around us. That last one percent is in the choices we make – to stand out, to fit in, or to just not care what anybody else thinks.
This article originally appeared on Still Weird Zine.