the a-z of american fashion

Celebrate America’s birthday by saluting our nation’s unique style.

by Emily Manning
Jul 4 2016, 6:15pm

Photography Alain Dejean

A is for Avedon: While he was working under Diana Vreeland as a Vogue staff photographer in the mid 60s, Richard Avedon shot stunning studio portraits of civil rights leaders. But perhaps his most recognizable body of work chronicles neither fashion darlings nor powerful politicians. In 1979, Avedon traveled through state fairs, rodeos, coal mines, oil fields, prisons, and slaughterhouses to find the subjects who would comprise In The American West, an enduring portrait of the heartland.

B is for Bomber Jacket: Though it's become a style staple of 70s British skinheads and Raf Simons disciples, the MA-1 nylon bomber jacket is as American as apple pie. In the early 50s, advancing technology permitted US Air Force pilots to fly at higher altitudes in more streamlined aircrafts; a new, mid-weight nylon jacket was developed to adapt.

C is for Coming to America: Even Prince Akeem's McDonald's uniform looks regal in this 80s comedy classic. Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall nail sharp, luxe suits, as well as Queens local fare — like Jets and Mets sports jackets dotted with oversized NYC pins.

D is for Denim: Though the first denim trousers were actually made in Italy, we can't think of anything more American than a pair of blue jeans. They've been part of the USA's uniform since the late 19th century, when tailor Jacob Davis manufactured the first pair of copper rivet reinforced work trousers in tandem with the company that wholesaled him bulks of denim, Levi Strauss. In the 1890s, 20 years after bringing on Davis to oversee production, the company created the first pairs of 501s — a style so enduringly popular, it's one of the best selling items of clothing in the world.

E is for Elvis Presley: They don't call him The King for nothin', sugar. Every style the Jailhouse Rocker from Tupelo, Mississippi sported is iconic in its own way: from pegged trousers and pale pink suit jackets to Hawaiian shirts and bedazzled jumpsuits. When Opening Ceremony created a commemorative capsule, the brand enlisted photographer Jamie Hawkesworth to travel to Graceland and its surrounding Memphis neighborhoods to shoot the collection on locals, paying unique homage to Elvis' enduring legacy.

F is for Face off: The landmark 1973 Battle at Versailles pitted French designers — Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, and Christian Dior — against their American contemporaries: Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, and Anne Klein (who brought along her assistant, Donna Karan). The night marked a huge win for American fashion, especially for diversity; ten of the 30 Team America models were models of color, which sadly outpaces many of today's runway stats. The late Bill Cunningham's photographs of the show are on view at Savannah College of Art and Design until August 21.

G is for Greasers: Sodapop, Ponyboy, pomade pompadours, Marlon Brando, motorcycles, rockabilly, Rebel Without a Cause, Chuck Taylors, Crybaby: the greaser is one of the most iconic American youth style tribes. These wrong-side-of-the-tracks 50s bad boys cut across ethnicities and bear testament to our nation's cultural class divisions, whether John Waters' Drapes or West Side Story's Sharks.

H is for Hip hop: It's unlikely 70s South Bronx kids — who flipped soul and funk cuts into inventive new beats, and laced them with lyrics about life on the street — imagined the seismic impact they'd have on music and fashion around the world. The genre keeps reinventing itself, giving birth to distinct regional sounds and ahead-of-the game styles. From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's leather daddy biker chic to Run-DMC's triple striped staples — West Coast workwear to East Coast Coogi —so much of contemporary fashion is indebted to hip hop's diverse, dynamic culture.

Photography Daniel Jackson, Styling Alastair McKimm

I is for Ice: What do Slick Rick, biker gangs, Madonna, and Mr. T have in common? Bling. Americans love to shine.

J is for Jackie O: The former first lady persists as an icon of American fashion, despite having a real fondness for French designers like Christian Dior and Givenchy. Though her style shifted from clean cut suits and neat pillbox hats to wide leg pants, Hermès headscarfs, and large circular sunglasses from the late 50s to early 70s, Mrs. Kennedy Onassis is an eternal style symbol from the White House to West Hampton.

K is for Karlheinz Weinberger: The Swiss amatuer photographer's cult style tome Rebel Youth doesn't document American teens in the turbulent 60s, but Swiss ones. Weinberger's darkly sexy studio portraits are anthropological in their documentation of the "Halbstarker" subculture, disaffected youth who remixed American pop culture iconography to create their own codes of rebellion: big bouffants, DIY denim jackets, and those incredible oversized Elvis belt buckles. Unsurprisingly, John Waters loves them.

L is for Laurel Canyon ladies: The epicenter for countercultural flower children throughout the 60s, this LA creative haven fostered a distinctive folk sound and accompanying ethereal style. Joni Mitchell, The Mamas and the Papas, The Eagles, Joan Didion, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young are the place's patron saints. One of Mitchell's most celebrated records, 1970's Ladies of the Canyon, doesn't simply enshrine the hillside musical mecca's richly layered sonic traditions, but celebrates the louche local style she popularized: thick knits, flowing full skirts, and delicate embroidery, topped with talismanic jewelry.

M is for My: Adidas, Calvins, MTV — America's youth knows what it wants.

N is for Native: Much of American fashion is indebted to the construction and color dying techniques, printmaking methods, and pattern development Native peoples have passed down for generations. And yet — for a diverse culture in which individuality and creative self expression are key — the rest of America seems to have a pretty one-dimensional idea of what Native American design looks like, and they keep appropriating it. Fortunately, progress is being made, as multiple Canadian music festivals have banned headdresses.

O is for Official Preppy Handbook: When it arrived in 1980, this tongue-in-cheek handbook was a well-timed field guide to blue blooded New England WASPs — just as their sartorial leanings were expanding beyond the North East. As America became re-obsessed with luxury and the executive elite, this sardonic guide dissected prep styles and social cues perfectly. The Handbook broke down everything from why pink Lacoste polos are construed as dressy after 6 pm, to why L.L. Bean is "nothing less than Prep mecca."

P is for Patriotic pop: It was always going to be tricky for anyone to out-America Britney Spears' 2000 Rolling Stone cover. But then again, we weren't expecting Miley Cyrus to rock a rhinestone gingham jumpsuit (no doubt an homage to her godmother, Dolly Parton) and sequin shredded denim ensemble on MTV Unplugged.

Q is for Queen Bee: America doesn't have a monarchy, but we certainly have royalty. Before Beyonce, Lil Kim laid claim to the nickname, and based on her completely epic allegiance to Chanel, it's well deserved. Seriously, so much Chanel.

R is for Ralph Lauren: He provided some of Annie Hall's most memorable styles, Kanye West calls him "daddy," and his designs reached such cult status there's a NYC street gang who only wears Lo. It doesn't get more iconic than Ralph Lauren, the Bronx boy born to Belarusian immigrants who's shaped American style for 50 years.

Photography Mitchell Sams

S is for Saint Laurent Surf Sound: Hedi Slimane's ode to Southern California culture included patchwork punk motorcycle jackets, suede fringe overcoats, palm tree print satin bombers, bleached flannels, and graphics inspired by West Coast art legend Billy Al Bengston. He even sourced local musicians to walk in the spring/summer 16 show: The Garden twins made runway appearances, as did SWMRS brothers Cole and Max Becker, and Slow Hollows frontman Austin Feinstein.

T is for Twin Peaks: Part of what made David Lynch's seminal series so twisted was its all-American approach to fashion. Hotel heiress Audrey Horne served 50s smoldering schoolgirl realness in saddle shoes, pressed tartan kilts, sweater sets, and a pack of Marlboros. Bad boys Bobby Briggs and James Hurley epitomized jocks and bikers, with layered tees, Levis, and shearling collar leather jackets. But nothing topped Shelly and Norma's Double R Diner uniform: those tailored, sky blue shirts and skirts with white wing tips coulda doubled for killer league bowling night looks.

U is for Uptown: Harlem is one of the most fashionable places in America. Just ask Dapper Dan, Harvey Stein, Jack Garafelo, Matt Jones, or A$AP Rocky.

V is for Varsity: American sportswear has had a monumental impact not simply on designers at home, but abroad. Think of Vetements' couture Champion sweats, Margiela's baseball glove evening wear, or everyone who's ever used a pair of Converse All Stars — originally developed in 1917 for the professional basketball league — on the runway.

W is for White Tees: From Navy sailors in WWII to Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA cover to Dem Franchize Boyz's ode to supersized shirts, nothing beats the classic.

X is for Xpress Yourself: Madonna's 1989 mega-hit was technically about relationships, but it doubles as an apt descriptor of her unique — and monumental — impact on American fashion. The Material Girl singlehandedly drove teen girls from New Hampshire to Nevada to their local malls in pursuit of as much neon, plastic, mesh, and Aquanet as their mom's minivans could carry. She's been reinventing herself ever since.

Y is for Yeezy: Though Kanye's team is international (Brits Joe McKenna and Katharine Hamnett, Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft) his chief inspiration is as American as it comes: the Gap. "I say things like I want to be creative director for the Gap, but I just got to give credit to the people who do creative direction at the Gap. I've got to give super-props to Mickey Drexler," the former teen Gap employee told Vanity Fair of the retail mastermind behind the ubiquitous basics brand.

Z is for Zoot Suit: These oversized silhouettes can seem a bit comical in their proportions: the high waisted suits boast wide leg trousers with parachute tight cuffs, as well as heavily padded shoulders and enormous lapels. But the Zoot suit's history can be traced to racial strife: in the early 40s, the US War Production Board declared that the style wasted fabric that should otherwise be donated to the war effort. Consequently, the Zoot came to be viewed as unpatriotic, and during the war, Los Angeles erupted in Zoot Suit Riots, which targeted Mexican youth.


Text Emily Manning

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