Some foremothers and fathers
In the beginning, American fashion was largely defined by what it was not: European.
As Elizabeth Hawes, a sketcher turned journalist-turned-designer who went to Paris in the 1920s as a “copyist”—a pattern maker hired to copy French designs to be sold in the American market—in her classic memoir— treat wrote: “Fashion Is Spinach”, was one of the greatest achievements of the French to convince the world that their clothing design was the one and only 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 changed from pronounced “Main Bocker” to pronounced “Man-bo-shay”) – who moved to Paris to gain the approval of the Gallic establishment and thereby confirm their legitimacy.
The first designers to capitalize on their Americanness – Ms. McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Rudi Gernreich – did so in part by offering an alternative to the highly structured and class-dependent traditions of French tailoring, which dictated style from head to toe. They used zippers (zippers!), patch pockets, ponchos; they exalted everyday materials like denim and gingham and the white shirt. The aim was to offer clothing that could be mixed and adapted to the wearer and context – clothing that could free them from the dictates of a single designer or the constraints of the suit or the demands of changing several times a day. . Later, Mr. Gernreich even freed the chest from the bathing suit.
Then the stereotype of sportswear was born, defined by the ideas of “practicality” and “functionality” and “utility”, aligning with the romanticism of the pioneer and the homemade. But even then, that was an overly simplistic generalization. For every McCardell, there was an Adrian, who came from the Hollywood tradition and had a small truck with basics.
Still, sportswear remained the dominant ethos, setting the stage for the Battle of Versailles, when Halston (which 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 next generation of big-name brands—Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan—with their emphasis on minimalism, physicality, and national narratives. A breath of fresh air blew through the musty corridors that occupied Paris in the minds of consumers.
This story went in and out of fashion. It brought Michael Kors and Alexander Wang (to name two designers) to Celine and Balenciaga, but couldn’t keep them there, as what was first framed as positive eventually became (at least in fashion) code for “not so creative” or “not so artistic” or the even more pejorative “commercial.”