Inside many red-blooded Americans lives a Europhile. We are proud and passionate about our contributions to the world in democracy, technology and industry. We love our freedom, our autonomy and would never choose to live anywhere else. And yet.
We wish we looked as effortless and seductive as the French. We wish we were as glamorous and sleek as the Italians. We wish we had the attitude of the British. We have raised some of the world’s most talented and sought-after designers stateside, and yet there is something in the American style consciousness that always leans a little toward Napoleon syndrome when we compare ourselves to Europeans.
What is American style, even? As the history of our country is short, dramatic and a union of every imaginable ethnicity and background, to classify a national aesthetic becomes tedious as the target is always moving. But there is a common thread, a definite context and a resulting style that has come to define us as Americans and, more and more, even the old European guard is noticing.
Fashion developed in Europe over hundreds of years, with an established leisure class devoted to the development of art. American style, with just 239 years under her belt, grew first and foremost as an extension of utility. Levi Strauss added copper rivets to denim pants as a way to make workers’ clothes more durable in the 1850s. (Denim is a $60 billion industry today.) Chicago engineer Whitcomb Judson invented the zipper in the 1890s to cure the annoyance of lacing up boots. John E. Brooks of Brooks Brothers added buttons to keep the collars of shirts down, negating the use of pins. So much of early American style was informed by the desire for efficiency and practicality, and this has never left us.
The second integral part of the American aesthetic revolves around collegiate and prep school attire, which became a point of interest in the 1960s for a group of Japanese photographers. They would later release a book of candid photographs of students at Ivy League universities called “Take Ivy.” The traditionalism of worsted wool plaids, cotton twill khakis and polo shirts, in contrast to the young, nascent people who wore them, became a style of its own, with designer Ralph Lauren packaging this “preppy” look in the 1970s and turning it into a multibillion dollar company. The popped collar and pleated skirt cemented themselves as part of American culture.
As American style is driven strongly by nostalgia, there is no greater romantic notion in the Western world than that of the cowboy. In dusty plaid shirts with pearl snaps, slim-fitting boot cut jeans and distressed leather boots, cowboys represent an image of simplicity and virility, of honesty and nobility. The cowboy tamed the great American West, and when Western movies started appearing in theaters at the turn of the 20th century, the public adopted the style in homage for those days and that life. The cowboy aesthetic has been a driving influence in American fashion ever since, and it is perhaps enjoying an even brighter spotlight now than ever before. Designers from Tom Ford to Isabel Marant regularly draw from desperado chic, and this signature look pops up in the most obscure places around the world.
The essence of American style involves a sophisticated pragmatism, a straightforward, unfussy elegance and a spirited and fresh traditionalism. Our aesthetic revolves around our way of life and is also a nod to where we came from. It should certainly be considered as significant, important and valid as fashion from our European counterparts.