What Is ‘American Fashion’ Now?

In less than a week, on Sept. 13, as the sun sets over Central Park, the great and the good and the very, very glamorous will sweep up the marble steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the party of the year, otherwise known as the Met Gala, for the first time since the pandemic began.

They will greet the evening’s hosts — Naomi Osaka, Timothée Chalamet, Amanda Gorman and Billie Eilish — as socially distanced paparazzi record every entrance-making gown. The next day the choices will be picked over in snarky detail, best- and worst-dressed lists compiled and, perhaps, a few new style stars crowned depending on how the attendees (or their stylists) interpret the dress code. Themed “American Independence,” it is a homage to the costume exhibition the party is meant to celebrate, the first of two parts focused on that weird and amorphous term that tends to get thrown around a lot in design circles but is rarely heard in the real world: “American Fashion.”

On the red carpet that will probably mean a lot of star-spangled skirts. Perhaps even a faux Statue of Liberty or two. (No one ever said dress code interpretation was subtle.) But in the pop culture conversation and the belly-button-gazing world of style, it raises a different question: After a global pandemic and the outcry of the social justice movement, what do those words — American fashion — even mean? Within all the sepia-tinged nostalgia for the easy-to-swallow (or easy-to-wear) version of the American story, after all, there is plenty of discomfort and darkness — even ugliness.

The Label of All Labels

For as long as there has been a fashion industry in the United States there have been attempts to pigeonhole it and squish it into manageable form. The term has been tossed around pretty freely since but almost never actually defined.

In 1932, Dorothy Shaver, the president of Lord & Taylor, introduced “the American Look.” Claire McCardell, the 1940s designer, is often referred to as “the godmother of American fashion.” Geoffrey Beene, who transformed gray flannel in the 1970s and ’80s, was “the dean of American fashion.” In January, Tom Ford, the chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, used his position at the top of the industry’s lobbying body to make a big announcement. He was renaming New York Fashion Week “the American Collections.”

On one level, it’s simply a geographic designation cum marketing term: American Fashion (big “F”) is clothing that is designed (not made or shown) by someone headquartered in America. That’s it.

Other times it’s a visual reference to souvenir-postcard Americana: Ralph Lauren’s how-the-West-was-won nostalgia and Tommy Hilfiger’s flag-lite version of the same. Or Thom Browne’s surrealist take on the man in the gray flannel suit-meets-Buster-Brown. Or, in the case of Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, an effort to redress the whitewashing of those clichés.

But American Fashion also stands for something more abstract in the mental landscape of dress and identity — some sort of collection of values that are associated with this country, expressed through aesthetic choice, and disseminated across the world. Which is why Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Met, began to think it was time for a public reassessment.

What Happens When You Ask People to Define “American Fashion”

When you ask people what “American fashion” means, the responses you get tend to be a lot like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

When I asked Marc Jacobs what he thought, for example, he said: “For years I’d be working with Joseph Carter, my head of the design studio, and we’d be pinning something, and I’d say, ‘But it doesn’t look very American.’ And he would say, ‘What are you talking about?’ Sometimes I wasn’t even sure.”

Olivier Gabet, the director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, rolled his eyes at the whole idea, labeling it an outmoded concept in a global world. Virgil Abloh, the Ghanaian-American founder of Off-White and the men’s wear designer for Louis Vuitton, begged to differ. “‘American Fashion’ has always been a term I idolized,” he said. “For me, it meant the apex of American aspiration.”

But, Mr. Abloh continued: “There was a ceiling on the image that previously existed. And today’s generation has seen through it.”

This is a moment when the whole idea of national identity is getting interrogated on a wide scale. And that means fashion, too, is being forced to interrogate itself, asking the same questions. When it comes to the term “American fashion,” who gets to define it? Who gets included? Is it even relevant anymore?

Right now it’s kind of a hot mess. But that’s honestly kind of cool.

Some Foremothers, and Fathers

In the beginning, American fashion was largely defined by what it wasn’t: European.

As Elizabeth Hawes, a sketcher turned journalist turned designer who went to Paris in the 1920s as a “copyist” — a patternmaker hired to copy French designs to be sold in the American market — wrote in her classic memoir-treatise, “Fashion Is Spinach,” one of the greatest achievements of the French was to convince the world that their clothing design was the only real clothing design, their savoir-faire intrinsic to the essence of chic. Thus began a parade of American designers — Charles James, Main Rousseau Bocher (whose name somehow went from being pronounced “Main Bocker” to being pronounced “Man-bo-shay”) — hying themselves to Paris to get the endorsement of the Gallic establishment and thus confirm their legitimacy.

The first designers who turned their Americanness into an asset — Ms. McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Rudi Gernreich — did it in part by offering an alternative to the highly structured and class-dependent traditions of French dressmaking, which dictated style from head to foot. They used zippers (zippers!), patch pockets, ponchos; they elevated everyday materials like denim and gingham and the white shirt. The point was to offer clothes that could be mixed and matched to suit the wearer and the context — clothes that could liberate them from the dictates of a single designer or the confines of the suit or the demands to change multiple times a day. Later Mr. Gernreich even liberated the breast from the swimsuit.

That’s when the sportswear stereotype was born, defined by the ideas of “practicality” and “functionality” and “utility,” which connect to the romance of the pioneer and the self-made. Even then, though, that was an overly simplistic generalization. For every McCardell there was an Adrian, who came from the Hollywood tradition and had little truck with basics.

Still, sportswear remained the dominant ethos, setting the stage for the Battle of Versailles, when Halston (who famously freed the body even further), Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Anne Klein triumphed over Saint Laurent, Givenchy, et al. And they, in turn, paved the way for the generation of big brands that came after — Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan — with their emphasis on minimalism, physicality and national storytelling. A fresh wind was a-blowin’ through the musty corridors that Paris occupied in consumer minds.

This narrative went in and out of fashion. It got Michael Kors and Alexander Wang (to name two designers) to Celine and Balenciaga, but could not keep them there, since what was first framed as a positive eventually became (at least in fashion) a code for “not as creative” or “not as artistic” or the even more pejorative “commercial.”

A Brief Aside About Stereotypes

The problem is that these broad swings often served to obscure just how many alternative ideas were bubbling up; how many American designers were responding to subcultures entirely of their own making, whether it was Willi Smith with his “street couture” or Norma Kamali with her haute Lycra or Stephen Sprouse with his club-kid graffiti. Influences have always trickled up, even more than down, even before streetwear became a global phenomenon. See Mr. Jacobs and grunge; or, most recently, Christopher John Rogers, who merges ballroom culture with Technicolor couture; and Emily Bode, who has raised craftiness and patchwork to a high art.

This is why it has never made sense to reduce American fashion to any monolithic aesthetic. It is more accurate to say that these designers share a set of ideas that place a lot of value on freedom and do-it-yourself-ism, as Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, noted, and that are expressed in all sorts of seemingly unrelated clothes.

“The fashion system here has long been associated with a relatively strong belief system, entrepreneurial but with an emphasis on personal agency and live-and-let-live attitudes,” Ms. Steele said.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Style

The through lines have to do with the founding mythologies of the country — principles of democracy, free expression, rebellion and self-invention, rather than any specific silhouette or style or geography. Which is why Isaac Mizrahi, who made his name pairing ribbed tank tops with elaborate ballroom skirts, said that as far as he was concerned, Valentino, with its slouchy separates in double-faced everything, “is the most American brand working today.”

Perhaps that is also why there are so few instances of American brands continuing to exist after their founders have passed away. It’s not because the designer didn’t leave a clear and powerful legacy or archive — McCardell, Beene, Patrick Kelly had all that. It is because the idea of preservation of the past, of locking it in amber, is regarded with a healthy skepticism. Even when brands do live on beyond their founder, such as Bill Blass and Halston, they generally cease to have the same relevance. And why European luxury groups, which have built their empires on the reinvention of heritage brands, have not been able to make the same strategy work in the United States. People … well, rebel against it.

There’s a history of fashion declarations of independence.

It’s not an accident that the first salvo of the Met show, which is divided into two parts (Part 2 opens in May 2022) is called “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” and contains approximately 100 pieces, of which approximately 70 percent represent the work of “new” labels, many of which (Telfar, Hood by Air) have effectively revolted against the banal categorization that is sportswear as well as the system that birthed it.

“We all have very strong and distinct points of view,” said Hillary Taymour, the founder of Collina Strada, who works almost entirely with upcycled materials. “The dream is not to compromise. If anything, that’s what connects us, plus the lack of interest in being part of the established system.”

Fashioning a Different American Dream

“I just thought it was time to try to make people think differently about American fashion,” Mr. Bolton said. “The show is trying to problematize that tradition of always considering it through a lens of sportswear and reflect the way American designers have been at the forefront of wrestling with contemporary issues, be it ethical, sustainable or social, which are much more emotive.”

To that end he has organized the exhibition as a quilt made up of looks that represent a different set of words: joy, desire responsibility. To that could, and perhaps should, be added fractured and fractious, disruptive.

When Raf Simons headed Calvin Klein, and applied his European lens on America, he often looked to Hollywood films and classic horror movies: he focused on the Badlands, desiccation and danger: rotten farmhouses, the Warhol “Car Crash” images, “Jaws,” expressed in dress. Mr. Simons, of course, was pretty unceremoniously dismissed from Calvin in 2018, which tells you how that went over. But he was onto something. Three years later, it’s not that such alternative history is mainstream, but rather that the mainstream itself is increasingly fractured. And that, too, is a part of the American story — and perhaps has created the most interesting proposition for how to dress.

Often the result is niche, even weird. It ignores old tropes of “men’s wear” and “women’s wear,” treating them as shibboleths from another time; it takes the totems of aspiration and muddies them up with glee. It’s the collective known as Vaquera, mashing up camo and sequins and G-strings and banker’s stripes in a dare-you-to-wear-it piece of social commentary. Or it’s Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of Eckhaus Latta poking holes in knitwear and denim and — well, everything, including inherited ideas of beauty and luxury. It’s Heron Preston treating the uniforms of the New York Department of Sanitation liked mined gold.

It’s Telfar Clemens torquing and chopping wardrobe basics (tank tops, track pants, T-shirt dresses, puffers) to upend assumptions about sex and exclusivity.

“In many ways American fashion, like America, still exists more as a possibility than a surety,” said Eric Darnell Pritchard, an English professor at the University of Arkansas and author of a coming book on Patrick Kelly.

“It is, like the nation, a project that is still in the process of becoming. The more America, and by relation American fashion, truly reflects and embraces the difference that is and has always been the strength of who we are, the more those terms accrue historic, cultural, political and economic legibility and, in essence, meaning.”

It’s homesteading of a different kind.

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