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Ways of Life, Dress

In many regions of the world, people wear traditional costumes at festivals or holidays, and sometimes more regularly. Americans, however, do not have distinctive folk attire with a long tradition. Except for the varied and characteristic clothing of Native American peoples, dress in the United States has rarely been specific to a certain region or based on the careful preservation of decorative patterns and crafts. American dress is derived from the fabrics and fashions of the Europeans who began colonizing the country in the 17th century. Early settlers incorporated some of the forms worn by indigenous peoples, such as moccasins and garments made from animal skins (Benjamin Franklin is famous for flaunting a raccoon cap when he traveled to Europe), but in general, fashion in the United States adapted and modified European styles. Despite the number and variety of immigrants in the United States, American clothing has tended to be homogeneous, and attire from an immigrant’s homeland was often rapidly exchanged for American apparel.

American dress is distinctive because of its casualness. American style in the 20th century is recognizably more informal than in Europe, and for its fashion sources it is more dependent on what people on the streets are wearing. European fashions take their cues from the top of the fashion hierarchy, dictated by the world-famous haute couture (high fashion) houses of Paris, France, and recently those of Milan, Italy, and London, England. Paris designers, both today and in the past, have also dressed wealthy and fashionable Americans, who copied French styles. Although European designs remain a significant influence on American tastes, American fashions more often come from popular sources, such as the school and the street, as well as television and movies. In the last quarter of the 20th century, American designers often found inspiration in the imaginative attire worn by young people in cities and ballparks, and that worn by workers in factories and fields.

Blue jeans are probably the single most representative article of American clothing. They were originally invented by tailor Jacob Davis, who together with dry-goods salesman Levi Strauss patented the idea in 1873 as durable clothing for miners. Blue jeans (also known as dungarees) spread among workers of all kinds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially among cowboys, farmers, loggers, and railroad workers. During the 1950s, actors Marlon Brando and James Dean made blue jeans fashionable by wearing them in movies, and jeans became part of the image of teenage rebelliousness. This fashion statement exploded in the 1960s and 1970s as Levi's became a fundamental part of the youth culture focused on civil rights and antiwar protests. By the late 1970s, almost everyone in the United States wore blue jeans, and youths around the world sought them. As designers began to create more sophisticated styles of blue jeans and to adjust their fit, jeans began to express the American emphasis on informality and the importance of subtlety of detail. By highlighting the right label and achieving the right look, blue jeans, despite their worker origins, ironically embodied the status consciousness of American fashion and the eagerness to approximate the latest fad.

American informality in dress is such a strong part of American culture that many workplaces have adopted the idea of “casual Friday,” a day when workers are encouraged to dress down from their usual professional attire. For many high-tech industries located along the West Coast, as well as among faculty at colleges and universities, this emphasis on casual attire is a daily occurrence, not just reserved for Fridays.

The fashion industry in the United States, along with its companion cosmetics industry, grew enormously in the second half of the 20th century and became a major source of competition for French fashion. Especially notable during the late 20th century was the incorporation of sports logos and styles, from athletic shoes to tennis shirts and baseball caps, into standard American wardrobes. American informality is enshrined in the wardrobes created by world-famous U.S. designers such as Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, and Ralph Lauren. Lauren especially adopted the American look, based in part on the tradition of the old West (cowboy hats, boots, and jeans) and in part on the clean-cut sportiness of suburban style (blazers, loafers, and khakis).

 

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