Fashion can be viewed as self-expression because it expresses one’s true personality and creativity. Fashion makes up a significant part of our everyday life, from fashion shows to fashion weeks. Over the years, fashion has changed to cater to new environments. However, not many know where the history of fashion in America begins. Many exhibitions have focused on American fashion history, like America: A Lexicon of Fashion and In America: An Anthology of Fashion.
In this case study, we’ll explore the history of fashion in America by looking at clothes that have shaped America’s identity. On that note, let’s take a look.
The Early Days of America Fashion
Most people would agree that the history of fashion in America began in the early 1600s. This was when French colonists wore European fashion from the land of their origin. However, these narratives completely ignore what came before, disregarding the influence of Native American fashion on many more generations of designers. From the Sioux war shirts to the patchwork of breechcloths, Native American fashion differed from one tribe to the next. The brand celebrated local identities and resources in more ways than most. Their trend is one that most sustainable fashion brands would envy now.
During colonization, most tribes were driven from their ancient lands. Due to this, they came into closer contact with each other and started to borrow from different customs. This fusion of style gave rise to the creation of Native American fashion. These items include feather headdresses, fringed buckskin clothing, and many more. The buckskin clothing became part of the cowboy’s uniform and, by extension,n of the white American outfit.
This dialogue between old and new world fashions has co-evolved to reflect the increasing diversity of the American people. The history of fashion in America should not be understood and considered a part of the Eurocentric continuity. Instead, it would help if you viewed it as a body of work that draws on a larger number of influences and voices.
History of Fashion in America – The Gilded Age
One of the main influences of fashion is money, in addition to consumerist and vulgar connotations. It was during this period that industrialization challenged the hierarchies of the old. At this time, fashion was kept in check by feudal sumptuary laws, and it forbade the use of gold and silver lace, ruffs, and threads to people whose estates values were beneath £200. This led to an increased class divide from a visual standpoint and caused the denial of the upper-class accoutrements to the aspirational set.
By the 19th century, the New Money showed that status could be bought and turned the old establishment on its head. Cornelius’ The Commodore’ Vanderbilt turned a $100 loan into a $100 million railroad and shipping fortune and paved the way for his granddaughter-in-law to spend lavishly on parties like never before. Alva Vanderbilt’s parties far surpassed the old money parties and social prestige.
The emergence of photography and media made culture increasingly popular. Alva Vanderbilt used this opportunity to exploit the media frenzy surrounding her photo to oust her nemesis and prove that acquired wealth is better than inherited estate. Central to this enigma was attired, which antiquated artists criticized as superfluous frivolities while New Money industrialists considered them vital to their wealthy appearance.
In 2021, Anderson Cooper’s book Vanderbilt explained the most comic excess of the showy fashion sense of the family. Alva would combine a White and yellow brocade dress, deep orange and light butter underskirt, a velvet tiara with a peacock, and gold decorated blue satin bodice to leave everyone wowing. Eilidh Hargreaves wrote in the Vogue that the Alva once rocked “a string of pearls that had belonged to Catherine the Great across her waist,” Her daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt, is nothing short of a full-fledged European royalty. Even their family rival, Alice Vanderbilt, once dressed like an electric light to a ball, wearing a white and yellow satin dress and carrying a torch in her right hand. She resembled Lady liberty with that dressing.
These outfits foreshadowed the extravagant couture creations parade down the red carpet at 1000 Fifth Avenue on May 1. Some of the more witty gala gowns could even be seen as direct nods to gilded grandeur: Katy Perry’s 2019 Met Gala chandelier gown, designed by Moschino, is uncannily Vanderbilt.
Though the sensation of Glided glamour subsided over time, people’s admiration for the top-notch fashion that the era has pioneered has never decreased. If anything, it became more popular and extended beyond American society’s echelons. A popular American fashionista, Eleanor Lambert started the New York fashion weeks after getting her inspiration from the emergence of event photography.
“It was a genius idea, understanding the competitive nature of getting dressed,” says fashion and art historian Amy Fine Collins.
Lambert changed how the world viewed American Fashion after co-organizing the Battle of Versailles, an actual competition that would contribute to the international recognition of American fashion. The competition, which was held on November 28, 1973, matched the top five French designers, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emmanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan for Dior, against five American designers: Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, and Oscar de la Renta. Every designer showcased their collection in front of the social world’s elite, including the great Princess of Monaco. The American designers won the night as their shows erupted with vitality, colour, and a distinct brand of modernism lacking in the more traditional French designs.
From then, American fashion became a worldwide commodity and was no longer limited to expensive formal wear. More affordable and casual items like jeans made their way into the fashion industry.
New York City became recognized as the nation’s fashion core as American fashion filtered into the worldwide culture. Designers from Japan, Italy, and Great Britain found a growing following among cosmopolitan Americans with the opening of stores like Charivari, founded by the Weiser family on the hitherto unfashionable Upper West Side. John Lennon and Yoko Ono frequented Charivari and had a particular fondness for the Japanese goods to which the Weisers were adept at acquiring exclusive rights.
The debate between American and European fashion was more heated than between the two continents’ arts. Both discussions changed beauty rules and reimagined what might be considered unique and luxurious. Ralph Lauren was a key player in this conversation because he was regarded as the best British designer who mass-marketed conventional Britishness through designer Polo shirts and tweed jackets. Then there were the designers who had political clout with their cultural adaptations. Popular Black American Designer Patrick Kelly combined surrealist viewpoints with satirical racist iconography. In 1989, he created t-shirts with stereotypical images of black guys, which was a risky move for a high fashion runway. It was a powerful act of reclaiming, proving that fashion isn’t all about looks but can also fuel political dialogue.
Another iconic figure is Klein, who, according to English fashion journalist Hamish Bowles, Klein had spent a lot of years designing colourful and adorable clothes for Amazonian bodies, embracing a darker, more minimalist aesthetic. Thus marking the beginning of an industry-wide shift towards “authenticity, vulnerability, and almost haunting realism.” A teen girl named Kate Moss from Croydon was considered to personify this style best.
However, this new trend didn’t come without challenges; one of Klein’s campaigns featuring a naked moss received a lot of criticism for alluring a look that was described by many as a ‘heroin chic’ Marc Jacobs. This, too, came with a new wave which he got from the unsophisticated local’s looks of the street of Seattle. His latest collection came with many good and bad aspects – it earned him excellent reviews from Suzy Menkes in The International Herald Tribune and Cathy Horyn at the Washington Post. However, he was fired from Perry Ellis because of this show.
An American-Chinese designer Anna Sui, who worked as a stylist for fashion photographer Steven Meisel for a significant portion of the 1980s, is one of the most iconic names to emerge from that new wave. Sui created an empire out of her teenage dream by fusing post-punk attire with pastel colours and sending her supermodel friends down the runway in babydoll dresses to the sounds of Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins. Sui adopted the more carefree, uncurated approach to design pioneered by her peers. Stylists and consumers alike are looking to Sui’s handmade savoir-faire for inspiration as modern society enjoys a resurgence in interest in crochet and thrifting as part of a larger movement to support sustainable practices within the fashion industry.
Sui’s multicultural background serves as a metonym for the métissage that made New York’s 90s fashion scene so groundbreaking. Since buyers and sellers from all spheres of society assembled in the same stores and gathering places, the distinction between downtown and uptown labels amounted to little more than geography. At the same events, Versace-wearing models were typically spotted donning vintage flannels and denim with Park Avenue heiresses and the cool downtown art scene. Progressive European designers, typified by Austrian icon Helmut Lang, were not blind to the changes in the American fashion industry. He changed the fashion week schedule by displaying his collections in front of everyone in Manhattan after moving his business there in the late 1990s. All other New York Fashionistas followed suit, and before you know it, American shows started preceding European shows in timing, intrigue, and importance.
By the turn of the century, American Fashion has gotten a tight grip on the world. Fashion started becoming synonymous with films, and the MET Gala moved from a New York society party to a fashion-pop culture event – that aroused media sensation with high-end fashion showcased by celebrities.
The merging of fashion to pop culture caused a U-turn that made it to be more of a commercial and corporate affair. This also leads to the disappearance of conventional fashion brands and the coming of younger brilliant designers, predominantly multicultural Americans.
Without a doubt, the history of American fashion is rich with beauty, styles, and challenges and rises from grass to grace.