The mention of Italian, English or French fashion immediately conjures up an image of a particular style in the mind. When 'American fashion' is referred to, however, people usually become confused. This is because unlike European fashion, which had an early evolution and definition, the American fashion style was unclear and difficult to describe during its evolution between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The perception of American fashion has ranged from the casual look comprising of t-shirt, denim and sneakers, to the hip-hop style that adds bold and flashy jewellery to casual wear, and to the California-style shirt and beach shorts. A lot of people in other parts of the world would use the term 'sportswear' to describe American fashion. Others will make references to the collared t-shirt made popular by Ralph Lauren as the American fashion style while yet others will just assume that American fashion comprises of cheaper spin-offs of the fashion styles produced in Europe. The reality is that Americans have known and shown good fashion taste and creativity through a consistent fashion progression spanning centuries.
In the early part of the twentieth century, America depended on Europe, particularly on Paris, for its fashion products and style guidelines. Wealthy Americans made several annual trips across the Atlantic to Paris for dress fittings at notable couturiers such as La Maison Worth. This fashionable elite also purchased their accessories in Italy, especially in Florence. Back home, those that could not travel to Europe copied the styles of the wealthy. This trend continued until the Second World War and the result was a great European influence on the outlook and interpretation of American fashion. This reality also created a mistaken portrayal of the American fashion style as lacking in taste and originality.
The Second World War brought several changes to the American fashion scene. The most prominent of these was the blockage of the flow of fashion goods from Paris to America, as a result of the occupation of Paris by German troops. Americans were forced to seek alternatives in local fashion designers. This period marked the emergence of the modern American style through several talented designers like Harvey Berin and Tom Brigance. American fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar promoted these local designers, which encouraged the fashion public to patronize them. The period also contributed to the ascent of New York as a fashion city since the majority of the designers were based in New York. However, after the war Paris rose once more as the global fashion capital. The emergence of French designers like Christian Dior in 1947, Pierre Cardin in 1950 and Hubert Givenchy in 1952 contributed to the return of Paris' prominence in global fashion. Although Americans once more sought fashion inspiration from Paris, the taste for local fashion had been definitely roused and the American fashion industry had been born.
The growth of American fashion was also influenced by the numerous transformations in the consumer society and industrial sector. For example, advanced manufacturing techniques of ready-to-wear fashion made apparel more accessible and affordable to a wider consumer group. The rise of departmental stores such as Macy's, Bergedorf Goodman and Henry Bendel also contributed to fashion accessibility. The accessible fashion goods sold in these stores were complemented by the tailored apparel produced with sewing machines, which was invented in the nineteenth century. American consumers also adopted the use of the sewing machine for homemade clothes.
The rapid growth of the American middle class both in size and in wealth also contributed to the American fashion development. As the century moved into its second half, a larger proportion of the consumer population could afford either New York ready-to-wear clothes and accessories or the more expensive European imported fashion goods. As a result, several consumer segments emerged, conspicuously the ready-to-wear consumer group and the consumers of European luxury fashion goods. This marked the start of luxury goods segments still prevalent in today's American consumer society. Despite the different consumer groups, the American fashion taste remained simple and unfussy as a result of the simplicity of the lifestyle.
The increasing role of women in American society also led to fashion advancement, boosted by the invention of such home equipment as the washing machine. This created more time for female consumers to devote to fashion and their appearance. Also, more American women entered the corporate sector, which increased their level of sophistication and fashion outlook. The fashion development of American consumers was also encouraged by the adoption of several cultural and entertainment forms like the theatre and the opera, notably in New York.
The prolific fashion environment of the 1950s led to the emergence of several American designers still active today such as Bill Blass and Anne Klein in the 1960s. These designers adapted their creations to fit American society's expectation of easy and stylish fashion, rather than copying the styles from Paris, Milan and London. The sophisticated corporate fashion style also maintained a consistent undertone of simplicity. The simple American fashion was later established definitely by Jackie Kennedy, who was the country's first lady between 1961 and 1963. Her style constituted a combination of classic apparel accentuated with elegant accessories. She became a fashion icon for Americans and her influence eventually extended to other parts of the world. She was also one of the most famous clients of Italian brand, Gucci. The adoration of her style by the American public was the beginning of celebrity fashion influence in America and the rebirth of this trend in the European modern fashion environment.
In addition to Jackie Kennedy, who projected American fashion to the world, the 1960s also witnessed the emergence of two iconic designers, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, who would eventually make American fashion global. The factors that contributed to their immediate success were the establishment of a standard American fashion style by Jackie Kennedy and also the lack of well-known American designers. Ralph Lauren, who launched his business in 1967, adopted a reserved English country style with American non-traditional undertones while Calvin Klein who started in 1968 projected the casual look through experimenting with sportswear and coat dresses.
By the 1970s, both designers had become highly successful experts in ready-to-wear fashion. In 1974, Ralph Lauren designed the wardrobe of the cast of the film 'The Great Gatsby', and stamped a definite place for himself in American fashion history. Calvin Klein's success was boosted by the carefree attitude of the consumer public and the growing independence of women. At the same time, fashion magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, which had become reference points, promoted their designs and contributed immensely to their fame. The success of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein encouraged other designers like Diane von Fürstenberg and Perry Ellis to launch their fashion businesses in the 1970s.
By the 1980s, the American fashion scene was competing on a par with several aspects of European fashion. However the advent of globalization and the increase in international travel, digital media and intercultural influences had an impact on American consumer society. The high cultural awareness acquired by several Americans led to a desire for overstated fashion especially from Europe. As a result, the demand for luxury goods from European brands like Gucci, Giorgio Armani and Chanel increased. The t-shirt, denim and sportswear that highlighted the 1970s in American fashion were replaced by a modern chic and trendy style. American women also became more health and fitness conscious and used luxury fashion as a platform to display their looks.
This environment contributed to the swift success of designers like Donna Karan who launched her fashion business in 1984, and Isaac Mizrahi in 1987. The American taste for flamboyant luxury fashion in the 1980s also led to a significant rise in the demand for Italian luxury fashion accessories and apparel. This factor amplified the affinity of American consumers with Italian luxury designers like Giorgio Armani, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, still prevalent today. The love of Italian fashion by Americans would also later contribute to the success of Italian brands like Tod's, Hogan and Diesel.
The American luxury consumer market continued to mature into the 1990s. American fashion consumers adopted a more global outlook as a result of digital media, information technology, globalization and fashion magazines.
These factors also contributed to the rise in status of American designers like Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, and mass-market fashion brands such as Guess and supermarket fashion like Wal Mart and Target. This decade also saw the most dramatic rise in the American luxury consumer population.
The American fashion environment of the 2000s is highly developed and sophisticated. The luxury consumer market has witnessed unprecedented expansion as a result of several wealth-creation opportunities. The wealth index of Americans is on a steady upward slope and a large proportion of these wealthy consumers are young. Their profiles, characteristics and attitudes towards luxury goods are different from their predecessors and their expectations include a complete luxury experience in product and service offerings. In response to this, several luxury brands began the 2000s by extending their product ranges to include a total lifestyle offering for the consumer. Luxury brands that previously produced accessories, expanded into apparel and vice versa. American designers such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein launched high-end accessories, children's wear and furniture collections. Luxury brands also diversified into other products and services categories like hotels and restaurants as a strategy to extend their brands from 'luxury fashion brands' to 'luxury lifestyle brands'. Also, the American consumer's desire for convenient luxury shopping has led to the increased adoption of the e-retail of luxury goods by luxury brands. In addition to these, the American fashion market continuously influences global fashion trends and management practices through several developments.
The evolution of American fashion and its influence on the global luxury fashion industry has undoubtedly been significant. As the largest retail market in the world, the American fashion market has a stronghold on the global luxury fashion industry. The competitive and consumer fashion environments of America significantly influence the current state and future direction of the global fashion industry. As the market continues to advance and mature, its consumers' level of influence will doubtlessly remain important.
So, having said all this, what is the American fashion style? The answer to this question can be found everywhere. From New York, Paris, Milan, London, Stockholm, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bombay, to Sydney and beyond. When we look around us, on the streets, in buses, trains and elevators, what we see in people is a relaxed attitude to fashion, an individual fashion interpretation that is sometimes elegant, sometimes casual, sometimes sophisticated yet with a consistent undertone of ease. That is the modern fashion and it is the American style.
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