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‘You Could Be a Full-Time Vampire’

Former New York Times columnist Cintra Wilson on how ’80s and early ’90s San Francisco colored her fashion outlook.


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Cintra Wilson
Occupations: Playwright, author, actor, journalist
Age: 48  
Residence: Brooklyn

Your new book, Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style, is ostensibly about fashion, but you were clearly drawing a portrait of America that goes far beyond that. It feels like Tocqueville meets Hunter Thompson while they’re going through a clothing rack.
That’s exactly what I was going for. When I was writing the Critical Shopper column for the New York Times, I discovered that there’s so much you can extrapolate from fashion. It’s a great lens through which to view everything else.

You’d previously written for magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone about all kinds of things—politics, culture, the Olympics—but never about high fashion. What was writing that column like?
I was scared shitless. Not just because I didn’t know anything about fashion, but because it was the New York motherfucking Times! It was a jump onto a different planet for me. But eventually I learned the ropes.

You grew up in Marin and were an enfant terrible here in San Francisco, writing plays, performing, doing all kinds of gonzo stuff in the ’80s and ’90s. How did growing up here shape you in terms of fashion?
San Franciscans tend to make either much bolder or much more conservative fashion statements than people in other cities. It’s a lot more beige cashmere at the high end and a kind of anything-goes recklessness at the bohemian level. I knew several girls in the early ’90s who had permanent fangs dentally bonded onto their teeth: You could be a full-time vampire—that was a thing to do.

Were your own fashion influences as fantastical as that?
They really came straight from sneaking into bars like the Stud with a fake ID when I was 14, then moving on to the thriving underground fashion scene of Party/Science and Anon Salon in the ’80s. That was a terrific time to be a fashion animal. It was all-obsessing—it was all my friends and I thought about. Club life wasn’t about drinking or doing drugs, at least for me, when the fashion was so demanding. You had to keep your wig on and your wits about you—you had to show up and fiercely represent

The city must feel much different to you these days.
San Francisco has lost its bohemian vibe now that it’s so costly to live here. It’s really a sad thing, to my mind. It might not have been the healthiest lifestyle, but the S.F. demimonde always stomped ass fashionwise. It had respect among L.A. and N.Y. hipsters. Not so much anymore: Everyone thinks of S.F. as a closed circuit of tech-feebs now. It wasn’t as acquisitive in the late ’80s and early ’90s—not so impressed by luxury brands. I miss that commitment to aesthetics now. It gets harder and harder to find.  

In the book, you make this wild pilgrimage across America, from the Iowa State Fair to the Kentucky Derby to Miami Beach and New York City. What did you learn?
Growing up, I had used fashion as an unconscious way to distance myself from the rest of society. But as I traveled around, fashion became this great way for me to connect with other people. You could tell when somebody was wearing an article of clothing that was meaningful to them—it was a window into their soul, and it gave them an opportunity to open up. People all over America were dying to tell me the story of this fabulous belt they had on. It was surprising to me, because I was becoming an agoraphobic and cranky New Yorker. 

You write that it’s important for people to create their own style.
I believe that way too many of our fashion statements pigeonhole us in ways that we may not realize. They make us look like we’re in a certain tax bracket, at a certain level of intelligence. You’re labeling yourself every time you get dressed, literally. I think you should make choices that derive from your own actual taste. Don’t run with the pack. Dressing in a manner that’s more extreme than your personality—forcing yourself to evolve into those boots or whatever—is a very effective way to do that. You have to get out of your comfort zone as much as you can stand it. Be that person you wish you were.


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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