Some of the best writing around right now is coming from Cintra Wilson. If you don't know about Cintra and the Great J.C. Penney Fiasco then drop what you're doing and follow the link. The piece itself is hilarious and antic, in keeping with La Cintra's best short form writing, but what made the piece stratospheric was the New York Times editorial staff's mealy-mouthed, bumbling reaction when irate chubbies all across the nation started b(r)aying for her blood. It was a tidal wave of populist hatred for the Times' perceived elitism that was unprecedented for anything written about fashion before or since. More than two years later, people are still talking about it.
We poor slobs in Brooklyn (I live in the DMZ between Sunset Park and Bay Ridge) were under the astonishing misapprehension that the new J.C. Penney store was opening in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, just to the north of us. True! We were inundated with circulars trumpeting the grand opening of J.C. Penney on Sixth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets and we had no clue that this address referred to Manhattan. We all have kids on our block and were looking forward to purchasing cheap clothes for them at our new neighborhood department store. Who could seriously imagine that they would open a store in Manhattan? Their customers were all out in Brooklyn! It took my neighbor Lisa who has a car to find out the truth. She drove over to Sixth Avenue in Sunset Park on the day of the grand opening (probably to buy some matching culottes for her girls) and returned empty handed. It was only then that we realized the truth. Shortly thereafter, Cintra Wilson's review of the store went viral like Ebola.
Poor Bill Keller couldn't backpedal fast enough to mouth what were probably sincere regrets over publishing the piece. He certainly sounded sincere... well, you'd have to ask him, really. Clark Hoyt, the erst arbiter of the Times' perceived wrongs, reminded one more of a stern, Catholic school nun when he publicly rapped Cintra's knuckles for doing what she was hired to do: generate interest. Finally the Times was publishing stuff worth reading (and talking about) instead of the usual stodgy, patronizing crap that made me start purchasing the Post for its greater entertainment value. If Rupert Murdoch had any sense he would have hired Cintra on the spot. But he doesn't.
Missing from the clumsy backpedaling was any indication that anyone substantially disagreed with what she wrote. It was likely the fact that the piece was so brutally honest that made it howlingly funny. For better or worse, it effectively targeted the exposed nerves of Middle America right smack in the middle of the red states-blue states culture war. They didn't want to hear that they were fat and unfashionable. Here is the crux of what I think people found so objectionable:
It was never "get the look for less" so much as "get something vaguely shaped like the designer thing you want, but cut much more conservatively, made in all-petroleum materials, and with a too-similar wannabe logo that announces your inferiority to evil classmates as surely as if you were cursed to be followed around by a tuba section."
What precisely the Times expected to get when Cintra Wilson went to J.C. Penney was never stated but I'll tell you their dirty little secret now: they expected exactly what they got. It's brilliant, sharp-eyed, insightful and inciteful. This is why they hired her. They desperately needed someone to write about fashion in a way that might actually interest people. Cintra writes things that make you feel giddy and aghast in equal measure. She has that ability to take your breath away in disbelief that she actually had the NERVE to say THAT?! It's thrilling, like a roller coaster ride through a funhouse. The Times just didn't anticipate the blowback from all the people in the Belt belt who got their avoirdupois feelings hurt. Like it or not, this was the stuff of legends and it has cemented Cintra Wilson's reputation among her faithful fans.
I snorted involuntarily when I read this and recognized my own downmarket childhood in it. Middle America persists in the misty-eyed fiction that we live in an egalitarian society and they just don't want to hear anything to the contrary, true as it might be. I looked and looked again to find out what was so offensive but maybe the problem is that I'm an insensitive bastard after living in New York for the past twenty years. There's a certain toughness that it takes to live and thrive here. You can go ahead and make fun of me. I can poke fun at myself even better than you can. I am reasonably sure that my first suit came from J.C. Penney but I unabashedly admit to my low, white trash origins so it doesn't hurt me to be reminded of it. Even as a child I knew that it was just too damned bad that we couldn't afford to shop somewhere more classy. You shopped at J.C. Penney because you wanted to distance yourself from the Sears and Monkey Ward of your trailer trash in-laws; you fancied yourself upwardly mobile and J.C. Penney allowed you to feel just a little more self-esteem. When I split the parental split-level in the suburbs back in the late 1970's to travel the world as a ballet dancer I left all that behind and I was one of the coolest people on the planet, I promise you. But all things pass and now I am a hopelessly unstylish chubby mess, back where I began. Cintra Wilson helps me recapture some of that lost glory from my plaid recliner.
Reading Cintra's work, you (well, I do at any rate) feel at once part of a super elite insider's club and hopelessly déclassé. It's a kaleidoscope of dizzyingly perfect details that illuminate sacred truths and explode puffed up myths. I can't hang with her. She is too fast, too sharp and too funny. I'm terrified I might get blistered by her laser vision if she ever sees the clothes I wear now. But somewhere there exists an alternate universe that I can visit, albeit briefly, where Cintra and I take in the scene at a downtown club and coolly express our disdain for all the pathetic pretenders vying for our approval whilst sipping on cocktails. I keep reading that she is fashion's Dorothy Parker for the cyber age but that is inadequate. It leaves out the gonzo aspect of her writing which takes her off into uncharted territory.
More recently, ELLE.COM (who apparently have been napping like RIp Van Winkle) asked Cintra to go to the Iowa State Fair and deliver commentary on what she found there. In an indication that Cintra knows exactly who she is and where she's heading, the article was titled "Fear and Clothing at the Iowa State Fair." Dorothy Parker and Hunter S. Thompson had a baby and now she's all grown up. And then history happened all over again. Now, really, Elle... what did you think she was going to write? Did you expect a photo op with Cintra womanhandling a corndog á la Michele Bachmann? Not bloody likely. Again, in a case of, "the lady ELLE doth protest too much, methinks" the article was pulled down with backhanded apologies when the inevitable occurred. The folks out in Cornbelt Country went berserk. My heroine of fashion had done it again! But in reading this article I find a different Cintra Wilson. There's actually a sort of affection seeping through which she has gone to some pains to hide up until now. Here's the wrap up on the article and see if you agree:
I started thinking of the bottom-line Iowa fashion statement as Already Redeemed/Yet to Be Redeemed. It's kind of all the same, ultimately. Whatever you're putting on to cover your nudity, you've either already arrived at a perma-press virtue or you're just taking your time getting around to it. However many pork chops on sticks it takes you to get there, the landscape will make you lighten up eventually.
There's a kind of sweetness to that and it's too bad that people can't see that. Without that little bit of affection I don't think her writing would be as effective. It would come off as just plain nasty and Cintra Wilson is anything but. There's an unspoken acknowledgement that this is us with all our imperfections and we should all just lighten up a bit.
I first wrote to Cintra to express my support after the Times threw her to the wolves. She didn't need it but she was kind enough to acknowledge it. We correspond, sort of, in little messages in which I praise her gift for eliciting unexpected guffaws that cause things to pass through my nose at insane velocity. She always responds to my messages graciously with a pat on the head and I am grateful. Grateful that she's out there and not letting things slide that need to be commented upon. Things like exceeding the recommended load capacity of a pair of jeggings or the excessively self-reflective nature of the haute couture scene. We need cultural critics with sharp eyes to force us to reflect on what we're doing. Without someone to take us to task for our lapses, we all might end up shopping at J.C. Penney and then civilization as we know it would collapse.
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